Saturday, June 26, 2010

Saturday Musings, 26 June 2010

Good morning,

At 4:30, I awakened to the sharp bark of our dog protesting the presence on our porch of the paper delivery person. In the billowy space between truly conscious and completely asleep, I waited for silence to reassert itself. I drifted back to my dreams, as the dog settled into hers, and the white cat stood down from alert, stretching to her full length on the bed and sparing me a long, baleful glance.

My son's girlfriend has been visiting this week. I'm the unintended third party beneficiary of her presence. Patrick applied his furious energy to the cleaning of the house before her arrival; and the two of them have, with no small amount of charm, kept the place tidy for these past few days. My relief at meeting her must have been apparent -- she is lovely, smart, and well-mannered. I hear my son's voice in response to this editorializing: Of course she is. He would roll his eyes. I am not certain if her presumptive virtue arises from her selection of him, his selection of her, or the fact that she is a Kappa. But for whatever reason, it seems I should have assumed that she would pass maternal muster, and so she has.

Each filial milestone takes him further from my grasp, and he drifts towards independence with a lazy, natural instinct, much as I eased out of my dreams at the thought of coffee to be brewed and scones to be fetched from the bakery. My own departure from home occurred with a wrenching suddenness, on the heels of a telephonic spat between my mother and me about the time I should be home from some activity of which she apparently did not approve. If you are not home by 5, don't bother coming home at all. And I was not, and I did not, and the rest -- well, the rest is nearly four decades of history that could have taken a different path. But I have no regrets, except for any pain I might have caused her.

The lingering pain in a mother's eyes stabs the heart of those who gaze upon her. I am thinking this morning of a mother whom I met while I still wore the inverted box pleat skirt of a Catholic school girl, during the summer after my third year of high school. I volunteered at several Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, and on one particular Saturday, in a warm and humid St. Louis, my group went to a hospital so crowded that the residents lined its halls in wheelchairs.

We navigated the narrow corridors in a little clump of teenage earnestness. We carried baskets of samples donated by a pharmacy -- small bars of soap, tiny shampoo bottles, little packets of Kleenex. Our job consisted of inquiring of each patient what they might need, and pressing it into their hands or setting it on their bedside tables. We spread determined cheer as we did this -- How are you today? Can I get you some fresh water? Do you want some toothpaste? Clad in our uniforms, with our Peter Pan collars, our white Bobby socks, and our penny loafers, we journeyed the tiled halls with studied care, clutching our identical baskets, twitching our identical sheaths of straight, long hair parted down the middle, hiking our skirts a bit higher with furtive glances at the nun who chaperoned us.

Around one corner, we encountered a group of staff members gathered around a white-haired woman slumped in a gray-backed plastic chair. We girls halted our progress and moved closer together, unspoken worries overtaking us. We could not discern whether the woman was alive or dead, awake or unconscious. She made no sound. A nurse bent over her; a nun in full habit hovering just behind, holding a pitcher and a glass.

Our group had become one body, and we moved forward in that guise. As we neared the tableau, the woman stirred and one of our members jumped, giving a little cry that startled the other patients around us. The nun turned, seeing us for the first time. Her glance held efficiency and she spoke in sharp inquiry. Do any of you speak Spanish? she demanded of us.

My companions turned to me. As the only junior in the group, I had two years of Spanish and one of Latin to my credit. I cannot say if I moved forward or the other girls stepped back, but I found myself detached from their pack and thrust closer to the slumped figure around whom the staff stood helpless. I do, Sister, I admitted, and stepped closer.

The woman turned her eyes toward me, and met my gaze. I studied her. Thick, long hair, braided, wrapped around her narrow head; dark eyes, olive skin. Her small frame sank against the chair. She wore a flowered, muslin gown and thick woolen socks, too thick for summer, and heavy, laced shoes.

I leaned down toward her, at the same moment as she raised one hand and clutched at my arm. Buenos dias, I ventured. Como esta usted.

Her eyes flared, and a torrent of rapid Spanish flowed from her. The hand which gripped my arm tightened its grasp and she pulled me down towards her. I had little hope of comprehension. I smiled, I nodded, I desperately tried to sort through her words for something I could understand.

The flood of entreaty stopped as suddenly as it had started. I held her eyes for a few more moments, letting what I had heard sink into my brain, trying to sort out idioms, adverbs, verbs, nouns and names. I moved one hand to cover hers, and bent a little closer to her. No one else moved.

Finally, what she had said fell into some order. I felt a small warmth spread through me. I stood up. Can I look in her belongings? I asked the nun, who was undoubtedly in charge. She led me to a nearby room. I rummaged in a small, worn bag in the drawer of the battered hospital table between the two beds. I found a faded picture and a rosary, and brought them back out to the woman. Laying them gently in her hands, I knelt beside her, and began with the first prayer that I could remember in Spanish. Padre nuestro, que estas en el cielo. . .the woman's voice joined mine. She matched my cadence, though talking so slowly must have been painful to her. She clutched the picture of her long-dead child against her heart, and her fingers instinctively found each bead, as we went through the mysteries, saying the Hail Mary's, the Glory Be's, and the Lord's Prayer; and calling out each decade as we went around the delicate circle. She did not mind when I stumbled. I could not recall the Spanish words for the Apostle's Creed, but I did creditably well with the other prayers, and continued, crouching beside the woman in a cramped, difficult posture, until we had gotten through the entire rosary. When I walked away from the woman, she wore a contended expression. The rosary fell idle in her hand. The picture rested on her breast. She slept.

My classmates waited in the visitor's lounge, having completed their rounds. Someone had brought sodas, which they had consumed; and chips; and bologna sandwiches, which had been abandoned, half-eaten, on a table. No one spoke as I rejoined them. We gathered the trash, then moved to exit the facility, and loaded into the vehicle which had carried us from our school.

My Spanish has receded into the jumble of useless facts that I have stored on brain cells that I could really use for other purposes, along with the telephone numbers of long-forgotten friends, recipes that I thought I might try some day, and the Rule Against Perpetuities, which I have never once had to deploy. I don't recall a second visit with that woman. I cannot remember even asking about her, or returning to that hospital. I might have, but only our first encounter has stayed with me, wrapped in its heavy smell of medicine, and unwashed old people, and grief. I feel her hand on mine; I hear her warm voice with its musical lilt. I hear her whispering the name of her departed daughter, whose picture she longed to hold, and that desperate voice might be the voice of my own mother, calling for me, over and over: Maria, Maria, mi hija hermosa, Maria, Maria, Maria.

It is time to start my day. In a little while, the young folks will awaken, and we will have a fine breakfast. Patrick will load Rachel's suitcase into his car, for the trip to meet her father in Springfield, from which she will travel to see the new home he has purchased in Galveston. I am sure that Patrick will have a few sad days, but he has work next week, hard labor outside, with shovels, and dirt, and growing things, which will no doubt provide some distraction. As for myself, later today I am meeting a dear friend whom I do not get to see often enough. We will explore my favorite bookstore, and spend a happy hour over coffee, doing nothing much at all other than swapping stories, exchanging our wise and wondrous reflections on a world gone crazy.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Musings, 19 June 2010

Good morning,

I am sitting in a house that is more clean than my house has been in many weeks. The lawn has been mowed, the hardwood floors subjected to vigorous Swiffer-ing, the bathroom fixtures scrubbed, and all of the clean dishes have been put away in a house whose occupants have long prided themselves on their stacking prowess. In fact, the only messy room in the house is my bedroom, which is usually the neatest cranny.

I owe this happy state to last night's late arrival of my son's girlfriend. I have not yet met her, as I had collapsed into a post-trial coma about an hour before Patrick's return from Walnut Grove where he had gone to fetch her. But he hollered up the stairwell to let me know of their presence, in tones more overtly filial than I might have anticipated he would use in front of a witness. Sorry for waking you, he said, with seeming sincerity. I thought you would want to know that I am home. You can meet Rachel in the morning. I drifted back to sleep surrounded by a ridiculously happy glow of maternal contentment.

I slept the dreamless slept of the exhausted. I had three trials set for this week; two commenced. Of those two, neither concluded; both will resume in several months' time. The third got continued with a temporary stipulation designed to help avoid a bloody contest. Each required full days of preparation; yesterday's session demanded intense concentration, the application of considerable courtroom skill, and unrelenting focus.

I consider myself only moderately successful as an attorney. I have skill -- I do not deny that I do. I have a good client base, and frequent referrals from satisfied customers. I get return business. Colleagues, including judges, send cases to me. Most months, I earn enough to pay my bills, both at the office and at home. I do not accumulate wealth, but neither do I hover on the doorstep of poverty. I dwell, contentedly, in the middle of the middle class.

Different choices might have dictated a different result. I could have taken that big-firm law clerk position in my second year. I could have completed the doctoral degree that I started after college. I could have stayed in Boston, pursuing graduate work at BC as I had intended. I could have stayed in Arkansas -- no, wait, I don't really think I could have -- scratch that. Arkansas gave me hives; too much fresh air.

But here I sit. I close my eyes, and picture a young woman admitting to poor choices from the confines of the witness box, in a quiet voice, with clear eyes, and a calm, resigned demeanor. Those choices cost her custody of her son, and now are being used as a purported justification for terminating her parental rights. I am striving to combat that effort. I am her appointed advocate, her assigned attorney.

Sitting in Panera's last week, alone, in a quiet moment with a John Sandford novel idle on the table next to my coffee cup, I glanced at the workers. I noted a grey head or two behind the counter; observed a woman who has worked at that particular location for at least seven years, since the year I had physical therapy each Thursday at 8:00 a.m. in a facility across the alley, and came there for breakfast afterwards before going to my office. I watch this woman bend to slide a pastry from its perch behind glass, pop the confection into a bag, and hand it to the waiting customer. She wears her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail secured at the nape of her neck. She is thin, spare, angular, and quiet. I asked myself, Did she make this choice? As a child, did she think, 'I'd like to sell bagels for a living'? Without answering the question, I took my book into my hand, slid from the booth, and returned to my office in the steamy heat of Westport, with its cracked narrow streets lined with sedans and SUVs driven by those lunching in the various restaurants up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Surrounded by the quiet of my new office, I sat, briefly, breathing the lingering, heavy stench of paint and sawdust. Files stacked to my left; new, impossibly complicated telephone to my right; I gave myself to a moment of quiet panic. I am too old for this, I told myself. I forced a laugh at the remembered joke of a colleague -- What do you call a retirement community for solo practitioners? -- The cemetery! I closed my eyes, and drew in a long, ragged breath.

At day's end, yesterday, after eighteen hours awake, of which a full nine were spent at the courthouse; after five days of rising long before the sun broke over the line of trees on Charlotte Street behind my house; after dancing the dance in three separate courtrooms, with three different judges, and three sets of lawyers; I could barely keep my eyelids from sinking forward. I automatically moved around the house in the habitual pattern of my evening's end. I dropped my medicine on the floor, and left it. The book I had been reading fell off the bed; I left that also. The cat insisted on choosing my right foot as her pillow; I did not protest.

In the final analysis, I have no genuine marketable skills. I can talk, think and write. I have not had a boss for seventeen years, and I have not applied for a job since 1988. From 1988 to 1992, I worked as a radical ag-lawyer and then managed a political campaign. Since then, I have been a solo, and for the last ten years, I have been a family law practitioner.

I don't know if I will save my client's relationship with her son; I hope so. Of the many appointed clients that I have had from Juvenile Court over the years, I find her one of the more deserving. Similarly, I struggle to devise a solution to the contempt proceeding that I navigated on Thursday in which my client sought to enforce a prior judgment; or the difficult custody case that had its first day of trial on Tuesday. As for yesterday's proceedings, I do not know if I will ever be paid, though I will submit my bill to the Court for its consideration. But for my own financial obligations, I would not care. This is what I do. I suppose if I did not do this, I could write; but I do not know if writing would afford the same sense of moral satisfaction.

The dog barks, and I should let her back into the house so the kids can sleep. My room needs cleaning; a tottering stack of finished books provides an excuse to go to my favorite bookstore, beside which is my favorite coffee shop. There are worries on my doorstep, but they are not scratching to be admitted; and I can ignore them, at least, until tomorrow.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Saturday Musings, 12 June 2010

Good morning,

A writer's greatest fear lurks in the frailty of the mind and the technology used to record the meanderings of the mind. At 6:45 a.m. today, I sat in Room 60/61 of Tan-Tar-A, a quiet half hour before start of the first Planning Committee meeting for the 2011 Solo and Small Firm Conference. I penned several paragraphs of this week's meager musings before I realized that I had no internet connection, and those paragraphs faded into the abyss of my iBook G4's temporary files and now cannot be found.

I look around me, and wonder whether those words adequately conveyed the sense of family that I always feel at the Solo and Small Firm Conference. This is the 15th conference, and perhaps my 10th. I've brought children, spouses and companions to this conference, and a time or two, I came alone. But I never remained alone nor did I become lonely. This group, which burgeoned beyond the limits of the Lodge and has now grown to a capacity that Tan-Tar-A can only barely service, provides something that I hope everyone who reads these words feels at least once, and, if possibly, annually as do I.

It is a sense of family, and I am a middle sibling. Not the oldest, nor the youngest; not the first, nor the most longstanding. I am a middle child in this family by choice just as I am in my family of birth. I find comfort here in the middle of my life, the middle of this group, the middle of the state.

Comfort comes to me as I drift down Highway 50, early in the morning, on the first day of each annual gathering of our growing family. In the 365 days between conferences, I read posts on the Small Firm Internet Group, the list-serve to which these modest musings are initially sent. I learn about my own practice area; the practice areas of others, and the lives of those who have or make the time to share. I laugh, I regale, I grunt and groan. I mention things that I learn from the listserve to people whom I know outside of the virtual world in which this group daily relates.

Some know that I resisted joining this listserve. He who browbeat me into participation well remembers how strenuously I protested his suggestion that I join. I'm not a group person, I told him. I don't do well outside of small gatherings. He ignored my repeated litany of rationalization. Just try it, he urged. Everybody has to have a place that they are welcome. We're solo practitioners -- we're small firm members -- we belong together, and you are one of us, even if you resist.

He does not need acknowledgment -- he knows who he is. Last evening, he sat across from me on the patio, at our large and growing table of celebrants. You've grown, these last few years -- grown as a person, he told me. His words humble me.

If I have grown, I can take no credit for it. This group enriches me; this group invigorates me; this group comforts me. Yes, this conferences satisfies my CLE credit, and provides the occasional opportunity to stand before a crowd and mention a few things about my practice area that might help others. I get to drink luke-warm Bunn-O-Matic coffee, my fresh ground beans just a whispered memory. I eat eggs, freshly scrambled due to my dietary disdain of sausage; and I slip past the bacon and the tough steak, and nibble at the cream inside the dessert.

But most of all, I recharge. I re-invigorate myself. My drained energy restores itself in the collective energy of those around me. How can I resist the allure of this place? This group provides the soul for my heart, and the gas for my discontinued Saturn. Here, and nowhere else, do I hear my name called up and down the hallway; here, and nowhere else, do people whose names I have seen but whose faces I have not, know my son's name, and his class standing, his joys and his sorrows, his triumphs and his trials.

When I am asked, as I often am, where I call home, I hesitate. Should I claim St. Louis, the metropolitan area of my childhood? Jennings, the town where my parents had their house? Kansas City, where I have lived since 1980, if you don't count five long years in Arkansas?

Looking around me -- at the magician on the stage, my office-mate in the chair in front of me, the men and women in the large room around me, I no longer wonder. I am a member of the Solo and Small Firm Committee of the Missouri Bar. I am a Missouri attorney. This state is my home, and these are my brothers and my sisters, and Linda O is our beloved Mom.

These musings have limited appeal this week, I know. But if you are not of this listserve, and are reading these only because I copy you each week, take one thing from this. Find a family, and call it your own. Give to it that which you have to give, and take from it that which is offered. You will never regret it, as I have not, and you will be a better person for it, as I hope I am.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Saturday Musings, 05 June 2010

Good morning,

The rough pavement of my sidewalk chafed against my bare feet as I trundled down to the curb to toss the last little bag of trash on the pile made by my son in last night's gloom. A slow-moving car, its driver oblivious to my flowered pajamas and the cat padding behind me, gradually made its way to the intersection south of me and executed a careful turn around parked cars. I watched its progress, then retraced my steps, back onto the porch, leaving the freshness of the morning to step into the mustiness of my living room.

The week has given me a muddle of emotions. On Tuesday, I packed everything in the office that I had occupied for the last four years and moved two floors down to a newly remodeled suite. I do not like to move; I have been heard to foreswear ever vacating my Brookside bungalow. I am a homebody; a nester; a creature of immutable habit. Each framed photograph testified to my stationary self, leaving behind lines on shelves in the accumulation of dust. The bi-fold display of Patrick as a baby being held by his uncle Alan, flanked with a similar shot of my little bungled-in nestled in the arms of a friend in Arkansas whose name I have forgotten, had been in the exact. same spot for the four years of my tenancy; the lamp made by Alan had rested on the right end of the window sill since I placed it there when I unpacked it in 2006. I do not like change. I do not like my environment to be disturbed.

And yet, I have embraced this move. With newly built walls, and fresh paint, and a smattering of newly acquired furniture including a long-wanted oak writing table, the place invites progress and prosperity. My overhead has doubled, though the names on the bottom line have also. I share this venture with my significant other, and we are acquiring co-tenants, including Donna Coke of this list-serve, who, as a wills, estates and trusts lawyer, will doubtless provide the potential for services that my own clients often need. My decision to office with the man whom I am dating has raised eyebrows, but I have examples of similar and successful arrangements to encourage me -- Sherry DeJanes and Gerry Donovan; Loren and Judy Rea; Lance Weber and Rachel Peper. All lawyer-couples; all office mates or partners; and all still married despite their professional liaisons. I am hopeful. I have swallowed a very large measure of pride and let him pick the phone equipment and service provider, and later today, I suspect that I will let him pick the reception room furniture. I do, after all, have the corner, windowed office, so I can afford to be magnanimous.

As I unpacked the bric-a-brac, foraging for my stapler, grousing in barely audible tones about the inconvenience of not being able to find my favorite pen, I could not hold back the ghosts of other moves. Most notably, most memorably, in June of 1980, I boxed everything I thought to be important to me at the time, and moved from the south side of St. Louis to 38th and Warwick, to start my life in Kansas City. Everything I owned fit into the smallest available U-haul trailer, hitched to the back of my maroon 1970 Chevy Nova. The man whom I was then dating drove my car, and a friend of his followed in the vehicle that would take them both back to St. Louis. I was 25 years old. I had completed two years of a non-Master's track Ph.D. program before it lost its funding and forced me to make another career choice. I was scheduled to start a job at Impact Development, a not-for-profit run by Freedom Inc., on the Monday following my Friday move to Kansas City. I had applied to law school for the sole purpose of delaying the commencement of my repayment obligation for the student loans which had paid for the graduate studies. I did not want to be a lawyer. I just wanted a soft landing.

If you lived in Kansas City in the 1980s, you will remember that Warwick was the favorite street for the plying of the world's oldest profession in those days. I could sometimes see the ladies from my window, on those endless, stifling summer nights. They mostly loitered one block down at 39th Street, occasionally straying in my direction, following a lingering, hesitant customer. The bravest of them coaxed through the lowered glass on the driver's side, leaning against the door, letting their curves tantalize the unsure. I came to recognize the regulars during the weeks before I started school, and they greeted me as I drove past them towards the Plaza. I did not fear them. I found them fascinating, much as the good twin is often secretly jealous of her wilder sister.

The summer of 1980 gave me a brief respite from the failure of my prior three years, before I launched with crazed ignorance into the trifecta that would change me from a writer-wannabe to an attorney. In my hot apartment, behind the louvered doors that opened onto the hallway, in the heavy, unconditioned air, I hibernated. I moved with vague indifference in the overbearing heat, and very little made an impression on me. To say that youth is wasted on the young rings true with me. I realize now, as I stretch my aging muscles and creak my aching bones; as I bend to pull my socks over my arthritic feet, that every day of my past that I did not spend in giddy exhilaration dropped into a bottomless pit like wasted coins down a wishing well.

I hoard those coins now. I sleep as little as possible so that I see as many dawns as I can. I am reminded, in the final analysis, of something that someone used to tell me often, and in bitterness, though sometimes with a twinge of hope: Time is our most precious commodity.

Last evening, I had the honor of assisting an elderly lady, a woman most dear to one whom I hold dear, in her frailness and need. As I gently bathed her face, and brushed her hair, and slipped a fresh gown over her head, I saw again my own mother in her last illness. The days and weeks of her final year rose in my mind, claiming me with breathtaking power. And then I realized that June marks another anniversary -- my brother's death, and only the need to guide my friend's mother in the last few steps of her evening distracted me from sinking into a sobering depression.

Something must come before this corporeal existence; something must surely follow. But the ragtag collection of minerals which I occupy with greater or lesser ease will fail me one day, as it has failed those whom I loved, and some whom I resisted loving. I suspect that my propensity for hunkering down might have more to do with my instinctive reach for an anchor, to hold me against the last call, than any genuine fondness for stagnation.

My coffee has grown cold, and the morning has slipped from me. The paper has yet to be read; groceries need to be purchased; and I can no longer ignore the burgeoning tower of laundry. I must rise from this chair, and go on living. I shake the ghosts from my mind, and the cobwebs from my eyes, and pour another copy of coffee. I heard the gentle strains of my son learning Hotel California far into the night, so I know he will sleep a bit longer, and there is still time for some pleasant moments on the prettiest porch in Brookside, with the last few pages of the book I am reading, and the white cat beside me.

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.