Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Musings, 26 February 2011

Good morning,

In a life filled with ordinary days, the extraordinary ones shine, like the strong flame of a stout candle on a table in the middle of a dark room around which I stumble, tired and discouraged. I have lived an ordinary life, with the occasional flash of brilliance, the infrequent but comforting beam of a suddenly lit torch, raised in a cave, sending the shadows scurrying and the sordid creatures of scary nightmares back into their holes.

I am remembering such a shining moment, and that memory causes my breath to catch, and my eyes to close against the sudden rise of joy.

Standing at the top of a three-story parking garage with my son, more than half his life-time ago, I pulled a small bike from the back of my Buick and thumped it to the blacktop. Patrick slid with no small amount of reluctance from the passenger seat, dangling his helmet. His round face, still caught between the edge of toddlerhood and the bloom of childhood, scrunched into a frown. I don't want to learn, he told me. I had heard this before that day. I knew that he did; I knew that he wanted very much to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, because at age eight, all of his friends could, and he desperately wanted what every child wants: to fit into the group, so that he would be liked. I ignored his protest.

I pushed the kickstand out with one toe of my Doc Marten sandals and rested the bike near the car. Put your helmet on, I told him. I knew that studied, stubborn look. He settled the helmet too far back on his brown curls. It doesn't fit. I gently pulled it forward, and buckled the strap. It hurts. I paid him no mind. Come on, I said. Let's look around.

We had spent the last couple of weeks on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, faced with one failure after another. Under the rising umbrella maples, on the cracked cement of the hundred-year-old sidewalks, we had inched our way around Holmes, east on 61st Terrace, down the long hill on Charlotte, and back over to our street by way of 62nd. For the entire block-square route, I walked backwards, holding onto the handle-bars, encouraging, cajoling, and, occasionally, snapping. You can do it, I told him, with less and less gentleness, until we had finally abandoned the enterprise in a wash of his tears and my fatigue.

Now we had decided to try again. Three stories above 63rd Street, in the elevated parking structure of Cleveland Chiropractic College, my son and I faced his failure and my shortcomings, with a small black Husky bicycle minus its rusty training wheels staged between us, and nothing more than the faint potential of success and a guaranteed concrete from Foo's as incentive for his effort.

He scuffed his tennis shoes on the hot black surface of the top deck, running one toe through a line of debris. I stood, my back already aching, a trickle of sweat pouring down the crooked line of my spine. He folded his arms and studied the skyline. I placed my hands on my hip, and waited for him to relent.

After a few silent moments, he walked away from the car, over to the edge of the roof, and looked down at the passing cars. I stifled the urge to admonish him for going too close to certain death, thinking to myself, Well, you can't say he's not brave. Another little while passed.

I pushed my hair back from my face, and glanced over at the bike. Shifting my weight from one aching hip to the other, I watched my son shuffle toward me, hoping that he had found another burst of courage. But he barely looked at the bike before continuing to the car. I can't do it, he announced. I just can't. Somebody might see me, anyway. We might get in trouble. I might fall. An ambulance couldn't get up here. What if I get hurt?

With a long, hard sigh, I urge him back towards the bike. Look, I tell him. I'll make you a deal. I'll do it first. If I do it, you have to do it, okay?

I've got his attention now. He tilts his head to one side, studying my form, then the bike, then me again. His bright eyes pinch together as he draws his brows down, intently considering my proposition. You can't ride a bike, he tells me, in a voice that suggests that perhaps his only parent has forgotten her glaring inabilities. Oh yeah? Really? Then you won't mind making a deal with me, right? I shoot back, and wait for him to reflect on the odds of this seemingly sure bet. Finally, he wraps his small arms around his chest and says, Okay, yeah. You ride it, then I'll ride it, and then we'll go get ice cream, right? I agree.

At that point, I had not ridden a bike since I was fifteen years old and put the front brake of my little brother's three-speed on first, sending the back wheel flipping over and me sprawling head-first on the bike trail. I had struggled to my feet and staggered a few yards before collapsing, vomiting orange juice for a solid fifteen minutes then blacking out. I had been driven home by my friend's mother, and, later, much later, the doctor to whom my mother turned for help said I had a concussion. I have not drunk orange juice since. The memory sits keenly in my gullet.

As Patrick watched, I straddled the small bike, and hitched my heavy shoes onto its tiny pedals. I folded my knees as far from the handlebars as possible, and gingerly pushed the top pedal down. The bike started to wobble forward.

I made it about twenty feet before I felt the bike begin to tilt, and decided that I had shown enough prowess to call the bet. I put my feet down on the asphalt, pulled away from the skimpy seat, and said to my son, Your turn.

With the steady hum of evening traffic as our soundtrack, and the distant, setting sun as stage lighting, my son assumed the place that I had vacated. I stood in front of him, lightly holding the handlebars, while he settled himself. Ready? I said. I steeled myself against the earnest fear that I saw on his small face, apparent in the crinkle of his creamy skin, the one tiny tear in the corner of each of his half-closed eyes. Ready, he whispered, and I began to walk backwards. Pedal, Buddy, pedal, I said, and he pedaled, and after a few feet, I step aside, and let go.

And he went flying, on his bike, on his own, across the whole length of the parking lot, high above our neighborhood, as the sun filled the sky with one last long shimmer then sank beneath the distant line of dusty buildings.

Yesterday, my phone rang, and I heard my son's voice. I sent you my story, Mom. It's due in an hour. Did you read it? I smiled into the phone. Indeed I had. It's good, I told him. Damn good. Needs a little editing. . .maybe the foreshadowing is too obscure. . . but it punched me in the gut at the end. He did not speak at first. Then his voice, with only a small quaver, told me that a peer editor said she didn't get it. I assured him that some people would get it, and some people wouldn't, and whether everybody got it was not necessarily the measure of good writing. I heard self-doubt thick in his voice, and told myself: This too shall pass, and once again, he will fly.

When we ended the call, a wide smile spread across my face, and the room glowed with the fire of a torch held high over the wasteland of an otherwise dismal week.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Saturday Musings, 19 February 2011

Good morning,

The crisp blue of yesterday's sky yields to dull, mournful gray. As I made coffee this morning, I drew a sweater around my frame, then succumbed to temptation and kicked the furnace back into functionality. Its steady drone comforts me even before the warm air seeps into the room around me. I surrender to civilization. I am a creature of modern times.

As I crunch my cranberry-and-ginger cereal, with its organic claim to vitamin fortification, I muse over the morning news. I've dodged the union discussion so far -- pleading ignorance, demurring on account of overwork, shrugging off my heritage of civil disobedience born on an Austrian hillside when my great-grandfather shot off his own trigger finger to keep from serving in a war which seemed senseless to him. I read the LA Times article without judgment. I can see both sides.

An animated science-fiction film spews forth from the living room, where my soon-to-be stepson recovers from oral surgery with a healthy dollop of lemon sorbet and chipped ice. I'm doing nurse duty this morning, while his parental unit slams the innocent tennis ball around on a court and munches after-game bagels. There is a hum of liveliness in the house to which I am unaccustomed. I've had the morning air to myself for a long time; the change unsettles me a bit, though it is not without its pleasant undertones.

The newspaper heralds approaching spring. As I browse its wrinkled pages, I think of other springs, other beginnings, other fresh starts and new arrivals. The contemplation amuses me.

I've been on the far side of a rising creek, a river's width away from my vehicle and consigned to an extra few days on a mountain top. I've crossed that river in a borrowed boat, astride a splintered wooden seat, with the mild threat of the rising water swirling in tantalizing waves around us. Decades later, in the city, as spring reluctantly moves into the vacuum created by the melting snow of a record-setting blizzard, I need only close my eyes to feel again the passing wind, the brief kiss of the falling rain, the sharp delicious rise of fear just before the boat clears the rocks and pulls safely to the dock on the other side.

My week filled beyond the breaking point with poignant faces. A man whose children fell into the system while he stood helplessly behind prison bars. Another whose former spouse moved their children to an undisclosed location while he served in Iraq. A woman with the faint stamp of drug addiction evident in a nervous fidget, who gazed at me with eyes of deep, fluid brown in which her hope of regaining custody had drowned. I shut the computer down at four o'clock on Friday, slid the last of the week's mail on top of a collection of personal belongings, and closed the suite door on stale air, dimmed lights, and tidied files.

I threw my pile of scarves, and shoes, and jackets on the car seat and started the engine. On the way to the laboratory for my monthly tests, I dropped the letters in a mailbox, glancing briefly at two huddled figures sitting on a nearby church step. I saw their many layers of dirty clothing, and the crumbled brown bag that each clutched, and felt my eyelids flutter. Look away, I urged myself. You've had enough.

I parked in the handicapped space along the far side of the clinic wall. I passed a woman pushing a walker, intent on safely traversing the sidewalk and just barely clipping me with the edge of her over-sized handbag. Beneath the awning, a dejected, tousled man in green scrubs took long steady draws from a burning cigarette. I avoided his eyes and entered the building, taking the elevator to the first floor, and promptly getting lost in the underground maze of the complex.

With directions from a passing, friendly face, I found the lab in its new location. I entered, signed the log, and sat. Beside me, a woman texted on her cell phone, while her daughter meandered through a tattered picture book. The woman closed her phone, tucked it into her purse, and leaned towards the little girl. Together, they found the hidden objects on the book's pages, giggling, naming each one, chortling with each discovery.

After a few minutes, the woman turned to me and said, in a cheerful voice, I like your shoes. Surprised, I glanced down at my feet, instinctively tucked together at their customary, curious angle. Thanks, I replied, in a tone that seemed too skeptical. They are made in Israel. We both looked down, trying to figure out what that might mean. Neither of us spoke again.

But the child had noticed her interest and stood, suddenly, excitedly. Those shoes look like dancing shoes! she cried, and her little braids flew round her head, in a flutter of colorful plastic. Are you a dancer? I shook my own head, but she did not believe me, and asked me if I would dance for her. You dance, her mother said. Dance for the lady! And the little girl shed her coat into her mother's arms, and in a cloud of pink and glitter, twirled around the waiting room, on her tippy toes, with a bright shine in her eyes and a wide smile on her earnest little face.

And my heart was made light.

The little girl's name was called by a technician. Her dance halted; she curtsied, and then, placing her small hand in her mother's larger, bejeweled one, she stilled her little feet in their sparkly sneakers, and solemnly went through the door, where she no doubt bravely submitted to the needle's sting.

Another patient exited, and I hastened towards the door to hold it as her companion navigated her out of the lab in her wheelchair. Thank you, she whispered, laying one thin finger on my arm. I nodded, and sat. After a few minutes, I heard my own name, and seconds later, I sat in the technician's chair, waiting for the butterfly to penetrate the thin skin of my hand, as she chatted about her husband's latest tour of duty in Afghanistan.

And then, my week complete, I went home, feeling less discouraged, and perhaps, even somewhat hopeful. I navigated the streets of Kansas City with the warm recollection of that tiny dancer twirling around on the tile floor of the lab, with her shining eyes, and the world's most endearing smile.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Saturday Musings, 12 February 2011

Good morning,

One sentient being has gone off to take a standardized test; the other, to swing a small, stringed racket at a ball, with the intent of catapulting it across a net. I can more readily understand the first undertaking than the second.

I've had my 180 calorie breakfast and two cups of stout coffee. I've perused the Wall Street Journal and the Star, glad of the first while lamenting the second. I've no beef with the Star except bad writing; otherwise, they have shown more than expected generosity towards me, publishing nearly all of my letters and providing for ease of attainment by virtue of their "disabled" list, which requires their carriers to gently set the plastic-wrapped paper on my doorstep.

Both papers carry banner headlines about the ouster -- call it what you will -- of the Egyptian president. I read the WSJ article out loud to the tennis-player before he went off for his morning activity, marveling at the thought that a protest of 200,000 in the city streets, whether it is or is not properly called a revolt, was built and sustained in large part through the marvels of modern technology. I cast aside the dusty newsprint and poured another cup of coffee, and thought about my life.

I stood in a crowd of thousands once. I wore a tie-dyed T-shirt with the emblem of Walk for Development, the fund-raising venture of Young World Development. We claimed to be the inventors of the genre, and we might have been. In those days -- the early 1970's -- I still had waist-length hair and still wore blue jeans. I still had dreams, and ideals, and still believed that I could make a difference. I still aspired to nothing less than publication of one of my poems in the New Yorker. And yes, Virginia, I still believed in Santa Claus.

I took a train to Washington D. C. to the office of the American Freedom From Hunger Foundation as our local delegate. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I got: a nondescript, one-room shoestring outfit with a rotary-dial phone and a Radio Shack answering machine. I sat with the two wild-eyed hippies who ran the program, which had youth groups under its auspices across the country. They couldn't have been more than a decade older than my 15 years. Earnest and over-worked, the two had gotten grant after grant to address hunger in America through the efforts of American youth. They pushed their stringy hair back on their brows and stared at me with fatigue. I glanced about the room, at the dented green filing cabinet and the grey metal desk. They gave me some literature and thanked me for coming. They ushered me back downstairs, and left me to make my way back to my sister's apartment. I watched them walk away, down the streets of D.C., tense-shouldered, thin, sincere.

I went to the bootheel of Missouri one weekend, and stayed in the wrong side of town, where the streets had not been paved, and electricity had not been strung, and plumbing had only recently begun to find its way inside the half-finished, tar-paper homes. With a handful of other teens, I took the undesired residents of those mucky streets into the town's restaurants. We silently dared them to refuse to seat us. They sullenly dodged our dare. I suppose they must have spit in our food, judging by the rolled eyes, and the smirks, as we paid and left. We stepped off the curb and a car careened around the corner. Our host grabbed my arm with his strong black hand and pulled me to safety while the others in our group jumped out of the path of jeering teenagers. Let's go back, the man gently suggested. We're not really welcome here. Disgust rose in my young heart, bile in my belly. I stomped to the police building and filed a complaint. The clerk let me write it out, and put it in a folder on her desk. Uniformed officers stood nearby, silent, raising heavy, chipped china cups from which the smell of over-perked coffee wafted. I got their license, I repeated. You can find them, I got their license. The clerk nodded, never rising from her chair.

In a dented blue pick-up, we drove to a small canyon in the sweet, low foothills of the Ozark mountains outside that shabby town. I lay in the bed of the truck, feeling the sweet breezes of the cool night around me. I covered myself with one edge of a sleeping bag, and watched the stars, searching for something that might tell me what the future held. When I couldn't sleep, I stumbled over to the edge of the canyon and sat on a large rock, listening to the sounds of settling creatures, and the shrug of the trees dancing in the wind. I wrote a poem, which years I later entitled "Missouri Mourning" and dedicated to a man who did not love me. But when I wrote that poem, I only felt the draw of unsullied nature, and the allure of altruistic undertakings. I felt virtuous. I felt clean.

A social worker on that trip told me about his father's death at the hands of Idi Amin. Gazing across the expanse of the parking lot outside the extension office where the local workers welcomed us, this man must have been recalling a far different sight: his father's body, riddled with bullets from the death squad, his mother's slender, sobbing form, the terror in his younger siblings' eyes, his own posture of helplessness. He left his family to come to America, where people are not, as a general rule, killed for their beliefs -- at least, not by the government, or not if their beliefs are consistent with something close to the generally accepted mores.

As this dark-eyed, quiet fellow told me about his life before emigration, I stood, in a T-shirt, a windbreaker, and bell-bottom blue jeans, reflecting on the differences that a few degrees of latitude can make in one's life. Whatever I might suffer, I have yet to feel the impact of a dictator's bullet through the unprotected body of my beloved parent. On a scale of Nirvana to Uganda, I'm somewhere in between.

I can't quite pinpoint the moment when I stopped espousing causes. I can't put my finger on the precise second in my life when I abandoned my belief that I could make a difference, when the depth of my social contribution plunged, until it reached the stage of shallowness where it now dwells, amidst the ragged seaweed of unfulfilled ambitions. My only contribution to the social fabric consists of a ten-dollar-monthly contribution to the local public radio station, and the occasional thrusting of crumpled bills out my car window at the homeless standing at the corner of 47th and Main.

Perhaps it is a generational malaise. I close my eyes, and, when I have stilled my inner soul, I can summon a vague recollection of the bold feeling of power that I once possessed, when I stood in that crowd of thousands, waiting for the first Walk for Development to begin. I gazed across the expanse of the park at which we gathered, and met, with decided and conscious deliberation, the long lens of a photographer. Slowly, deliberately, I turned to face his camera, letting my jacket fall open, to reveal the emblazoned Walk symbol on my shirt. I set him up. He took the bait. My picture, standing in the determined throng of YWD Walkers that day, made the newspaper and I became the poster child for our movement. Not bad, I told myself, considering I didn't even Walk.

Forty years later, I fold the Wall Street Journal, and toss it on the small pile of paper destined for the recycle bin. My day holds nothing more challenging than laundry and dust patrol; and later, my beloved and I will be the guests of honor at a dinner given by his tennis group and their wives. While the people of Egypt rejoice, I will be obsessing over the proper attire for such an event. I won't even have the decency to be ashamed.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Saturday Musings, 05 February 2011

Good morning,

In the dim light of my upstairs bedroom, I feel a pleasant sense of isolation. The house has settled into a lazy kind of stupor. My fellow humans have left to fulfill their responsibilities out in the cold of February, and I have regressed to browsing through pictures of last night's opening of Penny Thieme's new show at the VALA gallery, clicking past pictures of myself in my current somewhat daffy guise. I linger on snapshots of a radiant Penny greeting friend after friend in a trio of rooms crowded with those who have always known that Penny's star would shine, the walls of which rooms bore brilliant witness to the fact that she has always done so.

Winter has asserted its own dazzling wildness into my daily existence. I bundle in down, and wool, and knee-high knits, burnished leather, and waterproof gloves. I sling my pocketbook cross-wise across my chest and lumber through drifts to my car. A stranger beckons with his arm and navigates me across an icy sidewalk. My neighbor scrapes my car's windows; my son sends an excited message: School is canceled! when Indiana feels the brunt of Nature's fury. It has grown impossibly cold.

I need but close my eyes to remember warmer days.

When I was in my teens, my mother decided we should camp as a family. She had fallen into what we called then -- and now, 26 years after her death -- her "hippy days". She cooked with whole wheat flour and brown rice. She stopped smoking, and took up sewing again, making her own wrap-around skirts in every fabric she found on sale. And she dragged us camping.

I am there, in an instant, feeling the heavy air of a warm day in early August. My father sits on a webbed lawn chair outside of a green four-person tent. I am thirteen or fourteen. My brothers, in one-pocket T-shirts and cut-off shorts, rummage around the clearing of the our little private peninsula, far from the RVs, showers, and port-a-potties. Beyond our encampment is Huzzah Creek, one of two tributaries of the Meramec River, south of St. Louis and an eternity away from whatever cares my mother leaves behind when she packs the battered pans, a dozen eggs, loaves of bread and cans of pork and beans in our old green cooler.

Prior to my mother's hippy days, my father's notion of camping had involved a cheap roadside motel and black-and-white television. But in the halcyon days of my middle youth, he gamely strove to please my mother, a kind of apology for the sins of the early decades of their marriage. Thus did he grudgingly assent to sleeping on a cot and missing a few days of televised Cardinals baseball. My brothers, on the other hand, thrilled in these rare and idyllic outings, breaking sticks for the campfire, gathering rocks, and plunging with abandon into the Creek. Occasionally, they ventured to the Meramec River itself, while I stayed in the gentler, more welcoming ripples beside our campsite.

On the last afternoon of our few vacation days, my brothers lured me upstream to the vigorous waters of the river. Come on, Mare bear, you can swim! you can do it!, they urged, stripping off their sweat pants and their T-shirts, preparing to swim in the still-damp trunks they perpetually wore beneath their clothes. I laughed, and sat down on a rock jutting into the water, casting aside my sandals and rolling up the cuffs of my blue jeans. Not likely, I replied. Nice try, but no cigar. I sat beside the river as they hurled themselves into its rushing depths, their wild laughter drifting back to me. I pulled my knees to my chest, and wrapped my arms around them, resting my head, letting my frizzy braids fall forward.

I drifted, half-asleep. The voices of my brothers receded, and my reveries shifted to the foreground. I didn't hear my oldest brother, Kevin, approach; and didn't see the grin he flashed to his confederate, Mark, on the other side. I startled, suddenly aware, just an instant before they pulled me into the water -- warned, perhaps, by the call of a bird in a nearby tree, or the deepest, most basic instinct of self-preservation.

I entered the river struggling, but at a place where even I could stand and hold my head above the water. Come on, we'll help you, Kevin told me, and each took a hand. With my bare feet sinking into the muck of the riverbed, I let them pull me forward. They guided me to the center, and then, with the current, we began to move in tandem. Just as slowly, they let go of my hands, and I found myself alone, moving downstream, feeling the encouraging kiss of the sun caressing my back while the cold, cleansing strength of the river pushed me forward.

With my eyes closed, now, in the chilly confines of my room, I lift my face and feel again the exhilaration of that day. I snap my braids, long shorn, through the air and lift my arms, sensing the warm wind rush over them. I salute the majestic, ancient trees that flank the river. I hear the raucous calls of my brothers, and other voices, other families, on the banks as I pass. With my eyes closed, I am once again the strong brave girl who turned, and, laughing into the wind, strode back against the river's pull, holding her head high, and her arms wide, smiling into the dazzling brilliance of an August afternoon.

Later, we scrambled to load our camping gear into the back of the car, and shuffled into damp shoes and clothes made grungy from the weekend's adventures. My brothers shoved each other, and Mother scolded them in an indolent, insincere voice. They settled against their respective windows, to my left and my right. I leaned against the back seat. As night settled around us, we journeyed home, and I fell asleep, dreaming of my walk in the water.

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.