Saturday, June 25, 2011

Saturday Musings, 25 June 2011

Good morning,

Beside me lies a rubble of a structure no longer needed here, a wheelchair ramp which, though poorly built, served well and now will be consigned to a dumpster. The newspaper lies on a tile-topped table, silently bearing its notices of deaths, and storms, and a surging river from the fury of which our water treatment facility has been spared another day by the failure of a northern levy. Faint trills of locusts, or crickets, or cicadas, call my stalking cat, who paces on the cold concrete.

My internal alarm clock summoned me at six, having no regard for the weekend. My husband had left much earlier, to take our youngest family member to the airport for the commencement of his summer sojourn at Harvard in its program for high school soon-to-be-seniors. He will spend the next seven weeks studying Greek Mythology and Philosophy, on a full-tuition program scholarship that he earned the old fashioned way: hard work, persistence, dedication. We burst with pride at the thought.

The middle child of our three, my son by birth, played soft chords on his electric guitar as the evening waned last night. I have no musical instincts but I hear the improvement he has made over the last year and understand that his gift is developing, along with his complex sense of humor, his intellectual prowess as he stands on the Dean's list, and his philosophical curiosity. I fell asleep wondering where the next few years would take him, and what new layer of complexity I will see in his eyes each time he returns, briefly, to grudgingly submit to a maternal inspection.

Of our eldest, my newly acquired daughter, I can say we smile with satisfaction. The application for December graduation has been completed, and she is set to commence graduate school shortly thereafter. We see less and less of her, which every parent's heart will recognize as a sign that she has fully entered adulthood, seldom needing our assistance, leaning on her own ability, even making arrangements now and then for family gatherings in my stead. The bird has flown the nest, and the papa robin chatters with pride as she soars.

I am not sure how I got this old. It seems mere moments ago that I myself left Missouri to start a life in Boston. I feel the plane lift from the runway at Lambert, and once again my stomach falls as the jet pitches and rolls in the winter sky. I am 21, and skinny, and I have just cut off three feet of hair and painted blond streaks in the resultant back-combed waves.

At the other end, at Logan, I am met by a friend, David Sotkowitz, who throws my suitcase in the back of his car in the snowy drifts of the short-term parking lot. The snap of cold air bites my cheeks, and I shudder in a coat that would have been more than adequate for Missouri winter but does nothing in Boston's December. We chatter, exchanging accounts of events since we last saw one another in a St. Louis summer, as he completed graduate school and I got ready to enter my last semester of college.

An hour later, after midnight, I lie on a makeshift pallet in a spare corner of his apartment, watching a new, vigorous snowfall. The ground outside holds seventeen inches, and another eleven inches will fall in the night, a heavy, silent shroud. I stand at the window in the morning, holding a cup of tea, wondering if I should grab my suitcase and go back to the Midwest. I am not this brave, I tell myself.

A few days later, I venture to the Boston College student life office, and page through a notebook of roommate listings. I use their phone to make a few appointments, then take the trolley downtown to meet my new boss at the job arranged for me by my most recent St. Louis employer. As the trolley slips underground, and the dark surrounds me in that brief moment before the lights come up, I feel the warm flush of fear. What do I think I am doing, I ask myself. I cannot answer.

In time, I learned to navigate the green line with ease. I never lost the slight surge of panic when the car traversed from trolley to subway, or the anxiousness of waiting in an underground station after the sun had set. But I developed some moderate adeptness, a passable ability to cling to an overhead bar so that an old lady could have my seat. I could, after a few weeks, read in a standing position. Though not a native, I could pass.

One evening, tired from work, I leaned against a pillar awaiting the train for home. My eyes drifted closed, and I felt my body sag. The low murmur of evening riders surrounded me. The cavernous underground stations hummed with the thunder of distant cars rambling through tunnels, barreling through the gloom of the spider web of which the Massachusetts Transit system is comprised.

I felt a gentle pull on the strap of my handbag. My eyes flew open and I grabbed my purse, stepping swiftly away from the body at my shoulder. I moved backwards, clutching my belongings against my chest, scrambling away from the groping hand.

I met his eyes. Dark orbs in sunken hollows, over crusty grime, surrounded by greasy, uncut hair. Raw, red lips; reaching hands with ragged fingerless gloves. The mouth gaped and sounds emitted, croaks that I recognized as words but could not distinguish. We stood, the thief and I, our gazes caught in an unending grip.

And then the train pulled into the station, with squealing brakes, and the rush of automatic doors. I tore my eyes away from the pathetic sight of my attacker, and stepped backwards, into a waiting car. I stood in the gap as commuters shoved past me, falling into seats. I remained at the entry way, watching the man, until the doors closed, and the train lurched forward. Darkness embraced me. I moved towards a bench, and lowered myself to sit, as the weary passengers adjusted to accommodate my small frame.

A storm has gathered as I sat on my porch, here in the Midwest, in the cool of early summer. In Boston, it is still springtime. A few hours from now, my husband's boy will struggle towards a waiting taxi cab with two large duffel bags containing what he hopes will be enough of the right stuff. He will spare the driver the flash of his confident smile, and perhaps, remember a few tricks of travel that we have pressed on him, in the last hours before his departure.

My stomach tenses as I think about his journey. I have felt this apprehension before now, when I sent my son to Mexico for his own junior trip, with everything on the packing list and his passport in a case around his neck, just as we were instructed. He came home seven weeks later with short, curly hair; two inches taller; and light years closer to his future, independent self.

I hardly knew him.

Thunder rumbles in the distant air. I am hungry, and I have chores to do. Although I have not miles to go before I sleep, still, my day is full, and there will be little time for worrying about the safety of our most recently launched prodigal son.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saturday Musings, 18 June 2011

Good morning,

The song of the mourning dove rises over the rooftops of the houses around me. The distant drone of cars on the main thoroughfare occasionally punctuates the stillness, along with the chatter of squirrels and an intermittent whoop of something I don't recognize. Morning; Brookside; another weekend.

I feel tension flowing from my body and breathe in fresh air to replace it. I am surrounded by a green veil of early summer leaves. I am hidden from traffic by the fluttering flag, the pale concrete of my porch, and a jumble of rocking chairs. My feet rest on an old grey rug, damp from the storm that briefly raged in the night. As creatures call to one another and a train cries in the distance, I am silent.

Over the gentle din of morning sounds, I hear another voice, speaking my name. I turn, and see a profile gone fourteen years this week. A strong chin, pale blue eyes, wide shoulders; a body in constant motion. I feel something long suppressed rise within me.

Another day, another house, another morning.

His figure huddled over a percolator, and I stood a few feet away, observing surprisingly dense stubble on his chin and a sweep of straight black hair falling over his eyes. He glanced in my direction and muttered, you don't look much better! before turning back, waiting for the bubbling coffee to settle in its pot. When the noise of the brewing ceased, he filled two mugs, and handed one to me. I moved ahead of him, through the living room, and out onto my mother's porch.

We both were docked in our family home, my brother Steve and I. It was the fall of 1977, and I had just come home with my tail between my legs, from a ten-month attempt to establish myself in Boston. I had escaped there after a pale conclusion to an undistinguished college career marked by nothing more or less glamorous than a stumble across the commencement stage and a few dim memories of classes that I frequently skipped. If I was 22, my baby brother Stephen must have been not yet 18, and maybe still in high school.

We sat in metal lawn chairs, on the wide brick porch, gazing on the street where we had played as children. Neither of us spoke. My hangover gnawed at my stomach. I glanced over at my brother, nervous, wondering if he could tell. The silence lengthened.

After a few uneasy moments had passed, Steve turned towards me, earnest eyes searching my face. What are you going to do now, he asked.

I knew he didn't mean, now that I had awakened, feeling sick, and had doused my nausea with the thick black brew. I set my mug beside his and looked across the street. I studied the house where old lady Venable had lived and, I understood, where she had died. I remembered her standing at the fence of her backyard watching my brothers and their friends party, in 1970, when I was fifteen and my parents had taken their first vacation, leaving my sister Joyce in charge of us. We thought Mrs. Venable disapproved of the hippies, and the motorcycles, and the blare of the Grateful Dead from the stereo. We derided her, even as we feared that she would come across the street and tell our parents about our parties.

I sighed. What was I going to do, now? I had gone to Boston ostensibly to start graduate school at Boston College, but fell of my own negligible weight, stumbling over the nightlife of the actresses whose apartment I shared. They thrived in their day jobs and caroused with their friends, while I sat at the table and wished that I could have their lives. I fled when we learned that our building would be converted to co-ops, and they said they did not want me to move into their new digs. We advertised for a roommate, not a sister, one of them snapped at me. I packed my clothes, my books, and an old rocker that I found at a junk store in Cambridge, into the back of my brother Kevin's car, and retreated. That had been a month ago, and I had spent the intervening time getting reacquainted with my old haunts in the Central West End and pretending to look for work.

The morning waned around us, and the sounds of the neighborhood rose. I could hear my mother in the living room. She opened the drapes, and gave a little wave to her children. I spared her a thin smile and turned back to my brother. I don't really know, I finally admitted. I can still go to grad school. SLU will still take me, in January.

He studied me for a few minutes while I avoided his gaze. Then he looked away, into the yellow leaves of autumn that swayed in the morning breeze. You ever wonder what the point is? he finally asked.

I could have answered honestly. I could have told him that I would have done anything to avoid that question, and often did. I could have told him that I had not one inkling of what the point was, nor of how to begin to figure it out, and the drive to know took me behind the wheel of a car with Scotch in my veins and an iron vise gripping my stomach. I could have assured him that the point had thus far escaped me, and that the quest for it haunted me and lurked in every bad line of poetry I ever wrote.

Instead, I laughed. No, not really, I told him. I'm not even sure there is a point.

He stood, then. He tossed cold coffee into the yard, and gave out a quiet, pale
chuckle. Me neither, he agreed. And the world turned a click to the right, as my mother opened the front door and summoned us to breakfast.

It's June, it's 2011, and I feel the warmth of the summer sun on my bare shoulders. I am hungry. The cursor dances on the screen, beneath the pale smears of dirt that I have let accumulate. My husband has already left for a breakfast meeting, and our two boys sleep the thoughtless sleep of their generation. Far away, in a small brass box adorned with a skull and roses sticker, the ashes of my brother Stephen have faded into a nearly painless memory.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Saturday Musings, 11 June 2011

Good morning,

I sit awaiting plenary session, watching over a thousand lawyers stagger, wander and saunter into the room in various stages of comparative alertness. Coffee does not seem to be in evidence, which astonishes me as much as does the unconcerned reaction of the hotel staff to the apparent theft of my Blackberry. As the lone hold-out on the Planning Committee in the up-vote for Branson, I am beginning to relent.

I continue to rejoice in the annual phenomenon of seeing people whom I consider solid friends despite the gap between meetings. Familiar faces and voices around each corner warm my heart and remind me of the strength and joy to be found in the act of belonging. It must be said that I have never experienced a sense of communal acceptance as deep and abiding as I do when I among the Solo and Small Firm lawyers of the Missouri Bar, including among my families of birth and choice. When asked why I attend this conference to the exclusion of one focusing exclusively on my practice area, I inevitably answer with the only certain truth: These are my people.

Solo and small firm attorneys share a bent that transcends practice focus. That bent flavors our choice of clients, office-mates and staff. It guides the type of organization in which we matriculate, and the extra-curricular activities that we enjoy. We are unique. We sink or swim on the strength of our personalities and our devotion to independence, something that would actually detract from our effectiveness in many larger organizations. We are individualists, and we applaud the other solitary frogs in our pond.

The speaker takes the podium and begins his humorous narration, the chuckles starting slowly at first, but sure to build. My mind unquestionably wanders, thinking of my son asleep in a tent in Manchester, Tennessee, on the grounds of a rock festival. That I cannot text him to check on his welfare due to the theft of my phone troubles me less than it might have; perhaps I have begun to trust him, despite my apprehensions, in spite of my conviction, based upon my own youth, that folly hovers just outside the perimeter of his daily voyage.

Last night, our last evening on the patio -- not just for this conference, but forever, due to our impending relocation to Branson -- I sat against the hard metal of my chair and watched the gleaming faces of people whom I have grown to respect and even regard with a deep measure of affection. I think about the shifts in each of their lives over the last twelve months: marriages, divorces, realignment of practices, births, the departure of children from the family fold. I see the sheen of grey, more prevalent on some heads than twelve months ago; the deepened lines on faces; the slight droop that none of us can keep gravity from visiting on our physiques. I see, too, the gold-shirted gaggle of law students, who seem to carry the bucket of enthusiasm that once was the happy burden of my generation.

The lesson of the sixteen years that the Solo and Small Firm Committee of the Missouri Bar has been gathering to learn and share transcends the confines of our profession. That lesson speaks -- or should speak -- to everyone. The human experience cannot be successfully pursued in isolation. Navigating from birth to death without alliances can be done, but not without substantial loss of the richness and complexity of being that cannot be developed alone.

The speaker seems to have taken longer than I would have expected to reach his core message, the directive to "give until it helps". I like that thought, and I hear that he has now reached this part of his speech. And so, I will close, with a simple and short message to my friends -- on this list, and elsewhere. We have survived another year. In fact, it appears that some of us have actually thrived. For anyone who has taken two steps backward for every one step forward, I offer the hope that the next twelve months will hold opportunities to dance a little bit faster, or with a more adept partner, or to more beautiful music.

Jim Brady, Executive Director of the Missouri Bar's Lawyer Assistance Program, spoke about avoiding "doom and gloom" in difficult times. He invited those in attendance to embrace "eudaimonia", which loosely translates to the art of flourishing. That suggestion struck me as a timely one, and so, with thanks to Mr. Brady, I share it with you. I invite you to embrace the future, and to flourish.

I'll see you all next year, in Branson.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

P.S. To folks who read this who are not on the Small Firm Internet Group, my simple apologies that my musings this week speak to my brothers and sisters at the Bar. These Musings grew out of a weekly reflection that I post to the SFIG, the listserve of the Solo and Small Firm Committee of the Missouri Bar. Our annual conference occurs every year at this time, and I am attending the last plenary session of it as I write. My musings this week therefore naturally dwell on these people, my colleagues and my friends.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Saturday Musings, 04 June 2011

Good morning,

I am able to enjoy the porch this morning, with the flag waving, and my son sitting in a chair nearby with a cup of coffee. The white cat stirs on the porch, where she has, presumably spent the night. When I came out of the house this morning, she crouched in the driveway, and a little critter nibbled at the food put out for her by my husband. The noise of my exiting apparently spooked the marauder, following the exit of whom, the cat retook her haunt.

I sit at the wooden camp table, one of two which I purchased at an estate sale several years ago for five dollars each at half-price time, late in the day, when the sale coordinators grew tired of arguing with the miserly customers and yielded to their demands for bargains. I try to write on this porch, weather permitting, since I find so much inspiration in the pleasant mix of urban sounds and smells. The recycling truck has already come and gone; I hear the trash truck in the neighborhood. A horn honks; a siren cries; the neighbor rattles dishes in her kitchen, beneath the open window.

I've had a scrambly week. I find myself stuck in the present, grousing and ruminating over an unhappy client, an ecstatic one, a few mistakes made by my otherwise beloved staff, a client's bounced check and the ache under my right shoulder where I carry my tension. As the vehicle's horn continues to sound, suggesting that it, too, suffers from undue pressure, I breathe the fragrant air of a city spring, and gaze over the lushness of our lawn, with its smattering of fallen leaves and the deep shadow of our maple tree.

I am at home here as I have not been at home anywhere else that I have lived. The rooms of our bungalow are too small for our belongings, and too few for our family of four. The cat has marred the hardwood floors in her dotage, with the smell that never quite vanishes and threatens to plunge the resale potential and value of the place. The door frames still need painting; the upstairs window has not yet had its broken pane replaced. A few of the home's more annoying problems would have to be listed on any seller's disclosure, and those annoyances plague us even now.

But for all its faults, this place suits me. It is the second house that I have owned. My first sat on the highway in Winslow, Arkansas, and had twice as many square feet, with only wood heat, and several acres of rough land around it. I might not have sold that place had I been prescient, for the highway has been re-routed and that land now sits on a scenic road, and no doubt has increased in value from the price I got for it.

My present home sits in one of the worst school districts in the country, and certainly, in the state. It has its faults. It posed insurmountable challenges for my former husband, bound as he was in a wheelchair that could not traverse to the second floor nor down to the basement. It presents different but equally annoying challenges for my present husband, with its tiny closets, and its dearth of living space, and its cussed location under the path of Life Flight's helicopters and the broad sweep of the police department's search lights.

And yet, I loathe to contemplate surrendering my ownership of this bungalow. I've resisted doing so for years, even though I realize there would be advantages to selling. I am a nester by nature. I shudder as I contemplate the homes leveled by the tornadoes, hurricanes and floods around our country and the world. I scroll over the New York Times before-and-after depictions, and my heart sinks. How could you stand to lose your home like this? Losing your spouse, or child, or parent, or friend, or neighbor would be far worse, I know. But there is a special sort of terror that overtakes me at the thought of losing my home.

I remember, though, a friend once telling me that she would be happy with her lover if they lived in a cardboard box on a New York City street corner. She found her home in his embrace. She needed only a place to nestle with him, be it a hovel or a mansion, or a nondescript apartment with one room and a galley kitchen.

The victims of the Joplin tornado lament the loss of photographs, and wedding rings, and the devastating loss of 134 lives. They stand, in footage on the news, and contemplate the rubble of their houses, and then, turn away, gazing fiercely into the camera, and give thanks for their continued existence, and the safety of their children.

My fifty-five years have brought me to this truth: I place my hand in that of one whom I love, and I step into the breach. The label on my clothes is unimportant. The texture of the walls around me has no relevance. The softness or hardness of the surface underfoot does not affect me. I feel the caress of the morning breeze, and close my eyes. I could be on a balcony overlooking a village in Spain; I could be, just as easily, outside a cabin in Idaho. The warmth in my belly tells me that I have been fed, and the slight tingle on my lips lingers from my husband's kiss, tendered as he left this morning, canvas bag slung over his shoulder. These sensations sustain me.

The horn has finally stopped. Presumably, its sheepish owner awakened and came outside to silence it. The sun has risen a few more notches overhead, warming the morning air. I hear a lawn mower in the distance, and the gleeful chirping of the baby jays who were born in our gutter and now are learning to fly, though we fear the one who catapulted out of the nest last week did not make it back to safety despite our encouragement. The knot in my shoulder eases, just a bit, as I think about the day ahead of me. There is work to be done, and chores to be tackled.

But before I undertake these responsibilities, I intend to brew another pot of coffee, and talk to my son about the rock festival he plans to attend next week, far away from here, in Tennessee, where all kinds of danger await, mingled with an equal measure of potential joy.

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.