Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Musings, 26 November 2011

Good morning,

Muscles ache which I have not used for months. I suppose they are the famous "Mommy muscles" -- the ones that allow us to bend low, so as to lift a small child or a twenty-pound turkey; to push a damp mop across a kitchen floor; and to peel potatoes. But I awakened this morning to a house that sparkled, dishes snuggling in their cupboards, and a lingering aroma of fresh sage. I planned my life well: long-time guests who do not leave until the dishes are washed, dried and put away.

I enjoyed two Thanksgiving dinners this week, as I often do. On Thursday, we gathered at my parents-in-law's home. Last evening, our oldest and dearest friends (among many friends whom we hold dear) graced our table. And now I roll my shoulders to clear the happy stiffness resulting from eight hours of cooking. I smile over the pictures of young men teaching a bright five-year-old to play chess, and recall other chess games played in my house, a decade ago, when these same young men were serious ten and eleven year-olds. The world turns, and we move another click towards our collective and respective destinies.

I went to a new physician this week, an arrogant young woman who dismissively scribbled on my carefully penned medical history. For all of her supposed knowledge, she still got my symptoms wrong, as I learned when a testing lab phoned me to schedule their contribution to the puzzle. I put down the turkey baster to spare the woman a few moments, although she offered to postpone the scheduling interview until Monday. As we talked, I thought about the biting cold of the day on which I visited the doctor's office earlier this week.

When I left the medical building, I rued again my decision to dash over to the appointment without my coat. I stood on the curb, preparing to cross two lanes of parking lot traffic to reach the handicapped spaces. I stepped into the mark crosswalk, looking down at a long crack in the pavement. My eyes flickered forward as I gauged the potential for safe navigation to the center aisle, and I caught sight of a slim foot in a gold sandal extended towards me.

I noticed the thick support hose in which the foot was encased, and slowly raised my eyes. The woman wore a long, shimmering silver skirt that fell straight and stopped mid-calf. Her arms were bent towards her waist, her hands encased in white gloves such as I had not seen since my Catholic school days. The simple woolen jacket closed with a single large button. My gaze reached her face and met her eyes, for just one brief second, not long enough for me to register emotion. Her raised chin inched slightly upward. Her face was framed by thinning silver hair, swept up and held back no doubt with small metal hair pins.

She turned away from my scrutiny, unconsciously displaying the little tube running from behind one ear.

A man had one hand on the woman's elbow. As I passed the pair, I came close enough to recognize the smell of Old Spice clinging to his jacket. I reached the other side and turned back to watch him gently guide her to safety on the far curb. His suit fell away from his frame, its fabric countered before time robbed him of his sturdier presence. But his arm circled her as reliably as it surely had for decades, and in the brief second before the doors closed soundlessly behind them, he glanced back in my direction with a warning menace.

I closed my eyes and let the lingering fragrance settle in my lungs, a mixture of his after-shave and Chantilly Lace perfume. This is the smell of time, I thought. The scent of something that endures. I felt my body sway, and heard the voice of someone on the sidewalk talking into an invisible mobile device. I shook myself from my reverie, and continued into the parking lot, fumbling for my keys, pulling the stamped ticket from the pocket of my jeans. I took my place in the exit line and handed the ticket to the same woman who takes my ticket every time I visit one of my doctors. I listened to her cheerful greeting, and returned it, raising my window again before pulling out into the lane of traffic and resuming my mindless journey into evening.

A quiet rustle from the living room pulls me back into the pleasant air of a rainy Saturday. I spy the dog sleeping outside my son's closed bedroom door, and I catch a slight hint in the air of burned coffee. In a little while, I will rouse my son and we will venture into the city. He has not gotten a chance to do any of the clothes shopping that we planned for this holiday because his poli-sci professor handed out an assignment just before the students left campus for Thanksgiving Break. My son spent most of the last three days driving home or writing a paper on special interest groups. Today we will sip coffee at Dunn Brothers, and brave the aisles of Nordstrom Racks. Tomorrow the clock will resume its march toward the end of 2011 as he drives back to a place where he is not my just my son, but a person in his own right -- a world that exists on a three-hundred acre plot on which he has also staked his future.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Midweek Musings: 22 November 2011

Good morning,

Only time will tell if I live to write another Saturday Musings -- we are all visitors, even strangers, on earth. None of us know when our tickets will get punched.

So in keeping with my belief that if one cannot be a good example, one should be a horrible warning, I'd like to share with you that someone did something really wonderful for me today. It came out of the blue, and I cannot share the details as to do so might inadvertently disclose a confidence. Suffice it to say that I left home this morning with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat, but wearing, above my winter coat, a very broad smile.

This prompts me to suggest that each of you consider whether you can bestow an unexpected kindness. Lie in wait for it. Don't announce it. If possible, don't take credit for it. It need not be large; it need not involve an expenditure of funds. It can be simple. It must, however, be heartfelt.

I bid you all a wonderful Thanksgiving. As you and your families and friends gather, remember to do your "Thankful-Fors". This is a practice, started by my mother, in which those gathered each identify something for which they are thankful. We make the circuit from youngest to oldest, but you can do it any way you like. Get the hankies ready, and prepare to cry, and laugh, as your host carves the turkey.

Among the many things for which I am thankful: The Small Firm Internet Group to which my Musings are initially posted each week. SFIG is a family of colleagues which has given me both a forum and my voice, along with a keen awareness of the pleasures of our profession and an appreciation for its challenges.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all. May the Universe, and the deity of your choice, bless you, and may it provide many opportunities for you to pay your blessings forward to one who might need a tender touch.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Musings, 19 November 2011

Good morning,

The mums which we purchases largely for their splash of color, one September Saturday, have decided that if we did not want to continue watering them, they would not continue to grace our deck. They have succumbed to neglect and the fierce whip of autumn winds, and now roll in their weightless pots behind the table. Fall threatens to yield to winter, and I pull my sweatshirt closer to my frame as I gaze around me before deciding to retreat to my idyllic bedroom with its early-century paneling and its cathedral ceiling. The wind batters my bungalow but I feel safe.

I have become a virtual parent. I felt this stark reality in recent days, as I watched my SmartPhone for messages from my son and his step-brother, one of whom attends the college that the other left to visit this week. I pull the laptop towards me in the evening and scroll through Facebook for news of my adult step-daughter and her adorable boyfriend, and there, too, do I exchange greetings with the boyfriend's mother. I do not cyber-stalk my son, but I do take note of the pictures on his Facebook page, and I cannot help but feel gratified by the complacency that I decide appears on his features. I feel a small wince of worry at the ever-present and barely disguised beer bottles, but I have only to reflect on my own college days to know that he has not yet attained the depths to which my friends and I sank during our own college careers, and so, I persuade myself to watch but not worry.

By text-message, I learn of his play that has been accepted for presentation in the playwrights' festival, and his short story that will appear in the campus literary review. I praise my son for these accomplishments, remembering the clench of thrill in my gut, nearly forty years ago, when I learned about the planned publication of three of my poems in a local literary magazine in St. Louis.

I got that news by mail, since the virtual word had not yet been born. I stood at my mailbox and tore open the self-addressed stamped envelope required with each submission. The editors of Eads Bridge are pleased to announce that we have accepted three of your poems for publication, which will appear as a triptych on adjacent pages. We enclose suggested edits of those poems, and await your approval. I clutched the paper and grinned at passing students. It was not my first publication. I had been a high school correspondent for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and a guest-essayist for a Christian magazine aimed at teenagers, the publisher of which employed my sister. I had been the editor of my high school literary magazine in my senior year, on account of which, to no one's surprise, my writing had been published. But the submissions to Eads Bridge differed from my prior accomplishments in that I had no guardian angel and no captive audience. If the editors of Eads Bridge liked my poetry enough to publish it, then maybe -- just maybe -- it was good.

In the end, only two of the poems appeared. I regretted that, but the editors had final say. I had written the poems together, and to me, they only made sense together. But I did not challenge the final decision and I accepted the "writer's copies" which were my only compensation. My father evidenced the most pleasure at my being a published poet, since his father had also been. From the example of my grandfather, who died years before my birth, I began to wonder if I couldn't go to law school and write as a vocation, while supporting myself as an attorney. I set my sites on this goal.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And now, my son has grown into a writer as well as the musician that he could not help but also be. He sends his short stories to me for review, and his essays, and his papers. I comment; I encourage; I support. From my perch, overlooking the neighbor's roof and the distant trees, I walk the line between mother and editor. I read what he writes wherever I am when I receive it. This story seems unfinished to me, I told him, texting from Division 3 where I awaited my very tardy client on Wednesday. Ugh, came his reply. Then, a few seconds later, okay, what should I do?

And although I know he seeks direction for this one story, which I imagine must be tendered to his writing professor within mere hours from the time he sent it to me to read, I find myself giving him broader advice: Just keep writing.

From the tenor of his answering text, I know he must be laughing. I give him more specific advice about the story itself, and why it leaves me wondering. He's better at essays than he is at short stories, but he is young, and might well find himself excelling in any of these genres. I haven't read the play as of yet, though I have asked to do so. He'll send it, in his own time, and, hopefully, one day I will receive a doc file of his first novel.

I am, when all is said and done, both a virtual parent and a dishonest one. If I bared my soul, I would admit that I want him to pursue his gift of writing in part, at least, because I did not. But as the wind whistles outside my window and the sounds of NPR drift around me, I protest to my silent, spiritual self that I do not strive to live vicariously through my son. Rather, I yearn to spare him from the isolation of regret that I feel for a road not taken.

Yesterday, I met a man at the Missouri Bar Fall Meetings who professed to have encountered me in the past, perhaps when he came to Jackson County as a visiting judge. I searched my data bank but found nothing to corroborate his memory. He asked me what type of law I had practiced in the past, and I told him: Lobbyist, prosecutor, civil litigator, family law practitioner. He remarked on the varied nature of my career, and asked of which endeavor I felt most proud. Actually, I told him, the job at which I think I most excelled was raising my son.

It might be the holidays making me a bit maudlin, or the long ride back from Jefferson City listening to country music. Perhaps in standing on my front porch at four yesterday afternoon, coat in hand, fishing through the mailbox, I triggered a recollection of that nausea which I felt long ago, holding the return envelope, wondering if Eads Bridge had accepted my submission. And perhaps that memory opened the flood gate of my most secret yearnings, of the life I did not lead, the loss of which I feel without diminishing my happiness in the life that I chose instead.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Musings, 12 November 2011

Good morning,

The sky threatens to weep. I feel the bite of fall even here in my dining room, with the rush of heat from the register seeping into the air around me. A slight shiver passes through me. I bite into another cold grape and take another sip of tepid coffee.

Last evening, my stomach curdled as I read the 23 pages of grand jury report regarding accused child molester Gerald Sandusky. I reminded myself that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, but the grand jury's findings have the strong stench of starkly rendered truth. My eyes winced closed time and time again. I fought the urge to delete the file. I made it to the end, only skipping the most gruesome sentences. I had no taste for conversation after I read the report. My husband queried as to its contents, but I suggested only that he read it. I could barely bring myself to summarize the findings.

The question is not why he was allowed to return to Penn State year after year, but why he is still alive. You defense attorneys might protest, and in theory, I agree: he is legally entitled to a fair trial, before an impartial tribunal, with competent counsel. So to paraphrase the hanging judge, let's give this son of a bitch all the due process he can stand, and then let's crucify him.

This news occupied much of my week, along with the sad loss of several beloved famous persons, including Andy Rooney, and the passing of a friend's daughter after a most valiant and dogged fight with cancer. In my more somber moments, I wonder if I should cancel my newspaper subscription to avoid the heaps of depressing revelations that ruin my breakfast. Then giddiness overcomes me, and I stand on my porch to watch the piles of autumn leaves gather on my lawn. My brain can only stand so much grief before it must seek comfort in the changing seasons, or the comic page, or a cup of strong Earl Grey.

On the wall of my bedroom is a framed square of embroidery. It's a pillow case, I think -- a "sham", I suppose. Its contours sport crooked stitches next to exacting ones, and a broken ring of stain where the hoop stayed in one place too long while the unfinished work lay neglected in my mother's sewing basket. She started the piece while sitting next to my grandmother's bedside after Nana's first stroke, forty years or so ago. She did not finish it. I discovered it after my father's death in 1991, and brought it home. I inserted a few clumsy inches to complete its motto, and put it in an old gilded frame that I found in my parents' basement, during the purge, while my two-month old son slept in a baby seat upstairs.

It greets me every morning from the shadows of our bedroom wall: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

I see my mother beside the hospital bed, stitching, glancing now and then at her mother's prone figure. A doctor had suggested that Nana could hear, and so my mother kept up a running stream of chatter, story after story of the endearing antics of her clinic patients, my little brothers' successes in school, news of my sister Ann, far away and on her own. I watched the rise and fall of my grandmother's form as she breathed through a tube, under a snarl of wires and a cover that I thought was too thin. I reached one hand forward and twitched the blanket closer to my grandmother's body, smoothing the surface, wishing I could bring a fresh pillow and a sachet to place under it. My mother smiled at me. Our thoughts ran on parallel tracks. She reached across the bed and handed me a clean, ironed handkerchief, with delicate tatting on the edges, and a vague scent of lavender. I used it to smooth my Nana's forehead, and wipe the sheen of perspiration from her brow.

I have that handkerchief still, and keep it, with others, in a satin pouch in my bedside drawer. I hold it against my face and imagine that the scent still lingers. I think about my mother standing over her ironing board, patiently eradicating the wrinkles. I sat beside her as a small girl, with my toy iron, which she held against hers to give me a bit of heat so I could help. She handed me the linen napkins that we used on holidays, and I pressed them, quickly, earnestly pushing with my small hand to mimic the practiced gestures that I saw above me.

My disgust in reading the grand jury report of the travesties in Pennsylvania stems from my tattered belief in the essential goodness of humankind. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary, I still cling to that delusion. I hear my husband's footsteps on the stairwell, and I know that in a moment, he will bend over me to place his lips on mine. He will inquire of my state this morning, and glance at my coffee cup to see if it needs to be replenished. I think about a basement bedroom, in Pennsylvania, where child after child cowered, awaiting a tread on the stairs.

I close my eyes and a lament arises within me. Victim 1, Victim 2, Victim 3, Victim 4, Victim 5, Victim 6, Victim 7 and Victim 8. I cannot call their names. The ones known are kept secret, as they should be. The identity of Victim 8 has never been discovered, but the man who stumbled upon the savagery inflicted on Victim 8 reacted so profoundly that those to whom he ran with the horrible disclosure described him, fifteen years later, as being so upset that they thought he was going to have a heart attack. If the sight of what Victim 8 suffered caused such grief, I can only image what enduring it must have done.

The morning sun struggles to dissipate the steely clouds. My coffee has grown cold and a fine layer of goose bumps on my outstretched arms tells me that it is time to raise the ambient temperature. My Saturday has begun in earnest, and I leave the past, with a small, terse nod to the gathering ghosts. Fare thee well, fare thee well; I love you more than words can tell.*

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

*From "Brokedown Palace", by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.
With a special smile going across Missouri to the Elvish Banquet gatherers.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Musings, 05 November 2011

Good morning,

From on an old rocker in my living room, as Friday drew to a close, I watched a neighbor and her husband walk by. Their stride has slowed in the last few years, and they took several minutes to pass my window. I stood and crossed the room to stand at the window for a better view. I noticed the wife's hair has grown to a lovely shade of silver, and the husband wears a cap similar to one my grandfather might have worn, decades ago. In years past, this couple zinged past my window on their bicycles, she ahead, he behind, and groceries bobbing in a basket perched in front -- sometimes on his bike, other times on hers.

Even more than the thickening of grey in my own hair, and the tightening of my own joints and muscles, the changes to this pair of devoted lovebirds mark the passage of time. For a few months, in 2008 or 9, the husband took his evening bike ride alone. I learned through the neighborhood grapevine that the wife suffered some undisclosed ailment. Since then, I have not seen them on bikes but they still take their evening constitutional, on foot now, faithfully.

I expect to see one of them alone some day, and I will know that their lives have come full circle.

The particular oddness of my watching these neighbors lies not in my voyeuristic monitoring of their lives' devolution, but in the fact that the woman of this couple went to my law school, graduating in the class behind mine. Yet I have never spoken to her in all the years that we have lived within blocks of one another. I know her name, and yet I do not call it. I made an effort to do so, once, about fifteen years ago. I greeted her as my son and I walked in front of her house with our Beagle in tow. Her eyes evaded mine. I do not know if she failed to recognize me, or knew me but did not wish to engage. I tell myself that I am respecting her preference for solitude.

Two blocks north of me, a house stands empty. Its occupant, a woman named Johanna, has moved to a retirement facility. The one-story bungalow had been her childhood home. She never married, never had children, never took a room mate or a boarder. She, too, walked every day, greeting my son and me, hailing the other walkers and the men who mowed their lawns. I often wondered what she thought of the changing block. I spoke to her only in superficial tones, about the weather, my son's growth, the relative state of her infirmity and mine. She walked on her own for years, and then with a wheeled walker and finally, with a minder. One day she did not appear; a few weeks later, I saw an ambulance at her house. Now the "For Sale" sign signals her first and last departure from the home she occupied for eight decades.

In Jasper, Arkansas, town of 562 (603 on the water line), I represented a friend's grandmother when she sold her house and moved into a nursing home one county north. Everyone on the block helped me pack her belongings. With my client ensconced in a wide rocker made by her deceased husband, the wives came one after another, with gift-wrapped trinkets which might never get used -- hand-embroidered handkerchiefs, small jars of home-made preserves, packets of pre-stamped note cards. She stretched a liver-spotted finger out and touched the care-worn hands of the farmers' spouses one after another, occasionally reaching to adjust her cardigan, to wrap it more closely around her frail shoulders. Her smile never faded. If there were two hundred families in town, at least half of them sent a representative to bid her farewell. I stood at her elbow, watching the church ladies pack her china and the local auctioneer appraise her furniture. They touched each item with reverence, as she had done.

That winter, we attended a pie supper for a family that had been burned out. Fire accounted for much loss in the country, since most people heated with wood and wood has a funny way of over-taking even the most diligent tending. I'm not much for baking but we brought an apple pie that my then-husband had made, It sold for three hundred dollars, the top take. The hippies of Murray Valley crowded in the community center shoulder to shoulder with the locals. Before the auction started, apron-clad wives ladled chili into Styrofoam bowls, with a hefty square of tender corn bread on the side. I hovered in the background, still a foreigner, in awe of the carefree disregard with which the women scrunched their faces in deep grins that furrowed the crow's feet beside their sparkling eyes. These women had earned their wrinkles, from fretting over crops, worrying about the building of barns, and wondering whether the old John Deere would last through harvest.

I shared breakfast this week with a friend, and something about the simple honesty of her countenance reminded me of one of the women of Murray Valley. All those years ago, when I sat at her kitchen table and complained about being an outsider, Jeanne turned her head to one side and gazed at me for several moments before replying. You've just got to step into the breach, she advised. And trust that someone will catch you, she did not add. I dismissed her advice and never felt at home. I left less than a year later.

Now I wonder if I've ever understood what she meant. I wonder, too, on which side of the breach I stand. I have lived in Brookside for eighteen years and have watched my former classmate age just yards from my porch, and have never made a legitimate effort to engage her in conversation. I don't know Johanna's surname, or the name of the retirement community to which she relocated. I can't tell you what ailment took Lise out of commission and forced her husband to walk alone for several months. I only know that her once-blond and plentiful hair is now silver and sparse. I know that she used to pedal a bicycle with vigor and now creeps forward in heavy, clunky shoes.

I can't help but think that something has gone amiss. I've watched the world spin, the world which now wonders if the approaching asteroid will drive a 1700-foot hole into its surface. If that rock hit my home, and I disappeared into the resulting crater, would anyone bother stepping into the breach to lend me a hand? I heard a speaker from Mexico talking about Dia de Los Muertos earlier this week. In some random context, he mentioned that his favorite Beatles lyric contained the best advice he'd ever heard: And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.

As I watched last evening, my neighbor raise her hand and rested it on her husband's arm, I drew a long breath, and briefly closed my eyes. I marveled at the ease with which she reached across that small space between them. Just before they moved out of sight, she turned her head backward, just slightly, in my direction. She caught my gaze across the expanse of my yard, and then, with seeming deliberation, turned away, and the two of them disappeared into the gathering dusk.

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.