Saturday, February 25, 2012

Saturday Musings, 25 February 2012

Good morning,

The sweet tinge of winter air kisses my bare shoulders as I bend to retrieve the Saturday papers from the front porch. Our black boy cat slides under my finger tips and whisks past me into the house. Hauling The WSJ, Barron's, and the Star into the dining room, I thunk my load onto the table and move into the kitchen to release our wiggling beagle into the backyard.

I've embraced the mundane with gratitude for the opportunity. A forgotten order at Spin, a local pizza joint, rewarded us with $20 in Spin bucks; that, with a ten-spot, made a lovely Friday date. We avoided talk of politics or religion, as we are a couple with divergent views in these areas, and focused on our respective businesses, our three children, and the coming First Friday at the professional suite which we share with another attorney and another financial consultant -- two Democrats at one end, two Republicans at the other, and a long hallway of wonderful art between the disparate fiefdoms. A charming balance, one we struck with conscious acceptance that opposites must, occasionally, attract.

After a long spell of silence from the heartland, I've had many telephone calls with my son in recent days. A part won in a student-directed performance of a play called "Big Love", the subject of which I have yet to ascertain. An A- on a paper. . .She said I needed to appeal to a broader audience, he told me. I wanted to reply, 'What the (expletive deleted)! You are my audience!' Listening, in my serene office eight hours to the west as the crow flies, I chuckle. I tell him to consider a more diplomatic phrasing, but I see his point. Then he begins to laugh and tells me that the cash machine at the Kroger in Greencastle, Indiana, has just given him a hundred dollars in five-dollar bills. That's my life in a nutshell, he notes. In the middle of nowhere, with a pocketful of five-dollar bills. When did my little boy get so wise? Has he always been this amusing?

When we terminate the call with our usual, "I'm going through a tunnel, Mom, you're breaking up", I sit for a second and think about myself at twenty. Like my son, I started kindergarten early: he was one month past his fifth birthday; I turned five the day before kindergarten began. Like my son, I was not twenty-one until my senior year in college, though unlike my son, I freely and openly drank alcohol as the pub on campus served everyone, regardless of age, a fact that I am sure the pub owners would deny, even all these years later. We also share a desire to write, and my decision to abandon that dream drives me to encourage him to embrace it. Just write, I tell him. Wait tables if you must, but don't convince yourself you have to have a 'real' job. Writing is a real job. Just do it. Thank you, Nike(tm), for giving me the catch-phrase with which I advise my son.

Two friends recently disclosed that they plan to seek publication of books on which they have been working for months, even years. I dust off the file containing my novel and scroll down through its pages. It's still not worth pursuing publication, I note; fiction just isn't my genre. I read a columnist in the local rag, who writes the kind of meandering essays that I favor, and think to myself, why can't I do this? and then I remind myself that I do, each week, and I feel the sigh which tells me that my little world has narrowed far beneath my dreams.

When asked my ambitions for our high school yearbook's senior page, I did not hesitate. To get a poem published in the New Yorker. My classmates ignored my stated dreams, and at the reading of the class predictions, of me it was said: Twenty years from now, Mary-Corinne Corley is still signing her name Mary-Corinne Corley. It was a cruel reference to their supposition that I would never marry, since mine was a generation which still routinely adopted the husband's surname on marriage. I never have done that, not in my three marriages, and I hasten to add that none of my three husbands sincerely wanted me to do so. But now, nearly forty years after the fact, I wonder if that prediction might not have inadvertently characterized my future: I will always be myself.

Last night, I woke my husband with this question: If I want to write about something that I know will upset people, but I really want to write about it, should I? Sleepy, he asked what the subject was. It doesn't matter what the subject is. Assume it will upset and disturb a lot of people. Silence descended on the bedroom. I don't know what to say, he finally ventured, in a groggy voice.

The writer's dilemma. Do I write about what draws me, regardless of the potential impact on others? Or do I self-edit, to avoid offending people, or disturbing their sensibilities? In the quiet of the late hour, with no barking dog interrupting the night time air, and only the tread of our youngest child and the quiet closing of his bedroom door to distract me, I reflected on the decision that confronted me. A memory of something I had witnessed surfaced several days ago, a profound and haunting memory, the description of which would unsettle anyone who read it, but especially so certain people who know the person involved. It dogs me, and my writer's instinct draws me to commit the memory to paper. But my heart suggests to me that my need to write about it should be suppressed in deference to the pain that such a terrible memory, even deftly rendered, might impart.

My husband's voice in the night: I'm sorry I wasn't more help. But he was, in a way, the very help I needed -- a silent, non-judgmental ear. Voicing the dilemma crystallized the answer. In the immortal words of my very, very dear friend Karl Timmerman: If you have to ask the question, you already know the answer.

And so, when breakfast had been made and eaten; and coffee had been consumed, and that third cup cooled in the Harvard mug beside me, I sat down at my computer and thought about my week. I reflected on the clients I have served, the cases I have settled, the times I have snapped at people and the chances I have taken that they will forgive me. And for reasons that escape me, I again remembered, as I had unexpectedly last night, a seventeen-year old girl in the physical therapy group at the hospital in the first week after my knee replacement.

Her parents stood behind her while she hoisted herself from a wheelchair and leaned against a walker. The circle of patients, all of us newly vested with an artificial joint on the same day, drew in a collective gasp at her bravery. She's standing! someone whispered, and indeed she was, just one day after a surgeon took the cancerous right hip out of her slender body and gave her one ostensibly impervious to mutating cells. We felt the pain that we perceived in the wince crossing her face. As a group, we held our lungs dead-still, and our walkers taut, our fists clenched on aluminum bars, as she slid forward, and took her first step.

I drifted to sleep last night with memories of that brave young woman replacing the disturbing images of which I had been drawn to write. I wondered what had become of her. Did the cancer return? Did she go to college? Has she gotten married? And just before I lost consciousness, I remembered her name, Heather, and I sank into dreams with a small smile lingering on my lips.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

A poem for 2012

Did you need me? the innocent asked,
out of context, and I thought,
Do I need you?
When did I not need you?
Before I was born
Before I breathed
Before time tore me into consciousness?
When did I not need you?
There was never a time when I existed
that I did not need you.

c. The Missouri Mugwump, 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday Musings, 18 February 2012

Good morning,

The pleasant murmurings of a radio commentator barely ascend above the whirring of the furnace. Both remind me of the increasing weakness of my hearing. I move my chair closer to the one, fighting the intrusion of the other. The fat black cat purrs beside the register, casting a condescending look in my direction from time to time; in the bathroom, the old lady cat, my cancer survivor, yowls for me to turn on the spigot in the sink from which she drinks. Saturday morning, Brookside, business as usual.

The days assaulted me this week, long, heavy and onerous. I've come to the end of a ten-day stretch of unrelenting responsibility. From trial preparation to status conference appearances to house-keeping and cooking, my February has yet to afford any cozy mornings or quiet afternoons. I should not complain: In my profession, being busy should translate to being financially stable, and in the pointed words of a judge for whom I prosecute, decades ago, I woke up this morning, which puts me ahead of a lot of folks, so let's get this show started.

Coming around a city corner several days ago, my eyes shrank from the force of the afternoon sun, which sat at just the right angle to blaze in my window. For a derisive moment, I could not see the street over which I traversed, and I braked, full-strength, and sat behind the wheel for several long beats, transported back in time by a trick of my obsessive brain.

On 09 February 1982, I stepped from the curb on Wesport Road, halfway between Broadway and Pennsylvania in Kansas City, Missouri, into the path of a speeding VW Sirocco driven by a man from Persia who should have known the power of a setting sun on the sight of a Midwestern driver. His vehicle struck my left leg and threw me, by some uncanny trick of physics, straight up into the air. As my body rose, I told myself, protect your head, woman, and wrapped my arms around my bended knees, letting my head fall forward. Days later, a woman named Summer Shipp told me that she saw me fly past her office window on the second floor of what was then the Tivol theatre. Summer Shipp herself fell to a murderer's wrath, not long ago, half a life after she reached for her desk phone to call the police and report that a woman had just jumped from her roof, the way she perceived what she had seen.

I don't know how far I went above the street from which I had been catapulted. As I flew into the early evening sky, I rose higher than my corporal existence, and looked down upon my body. I saw the loose bun on the nape of my neck, falling out of its pins, sending spirals of auburn curls cascading over the brown suede coat into which I had huddled as I tried to cross Wesport Road. I saw the little shoes pulled onto my feet, kitten heels, the only dress shoes I owned, bought at Bob Jones Shoes for the job interview which I had had that day. I saw my arms tightly wound around my legs and the sharp bend of my knees.

I'm dead, I told myself, as I lazily contemplated my small body rising above the earth. I felt myself suddenly suffused with warmth, and light, and a sultry sense of laziness that I had not previously experienced. I lost interest in the sight of my body and raised my eyes, searching for the source of the brightness with which I was surrounded. And I saw a startlingly bright being, hovering in the air beside me, with an expression on its face that I perceived as unearthly kindness.

The being raised an arm, and placed its hand on my head. A calmness spread throughout me, mild, and sweet. I bent my arms, reaching my hands towards the form in front of me, ignoring my body in its cramped little knot, still rising, beneath me. I heard a serene voice which seemed to come from the being that I faced: It's not time yet. And then the hand upon my head gently pushed downward, and I snapped back into my body, and found myself rapidly falling.

I smashed into the hood of the car that had hit me and flew into his windshield, bent knees first, and the glass and my right leg simultaneously shattered. The vehicle suddenly stopped, and my body, still with my arms wrapped around my bent legs, flew forward eight-two feet from the front of the wrecked VW. I landed on the street with a sickening thud, and lay, still, unmoving, unaware of the dropped jaw of the neighborhood cop standing on the sidewalk to which I had been crossing, a hot coffee forgotten and sagging in his hand.

The world stopped turning, briefly. The unfortunate driver sat behind the wheel of his car, regretting his decision to leave Iran and come to America, to move to Kansas City, and drive a car on which he had no insurance. Summer Shipp froze at the window of her office, and the cop on his beat failed to notice that his coffee had drained from its paper cup. A small gaggle of nurses stopped on the threshold of a bar where they intended to spend happy hour. In the midst of it all, I lay, stunned, unmoving, thinking only, Well, I guess I'm not going to die of a head injury, anyway.

The wail of the approaching ambulance snapped the world from its stupor. Miss Shipp ran to the inner stairwell of her theatre and burst out onto the street. One of the nurses shrugged out of her coat and spread it over me. Do you think we should get her out of the street, a frantic voice asked, and I spoke, for the first time, startling those who were not convinced that I had survived. Don't you people watch television! Never move someone who might have a neck injury!

At the same time, I realized that my vision had blurred. I repeatedly passed my hand in front of my face, prompting someone to speculate that I might be hysterical. I think I lost a contact lens, I told the woman who by now had crouched down beside me, holding her body over mine, shielding me from the chilly winter air. And the paramedics descended from their rig, and my ethereal savior retreated, back to its heavenly perch, or wherever the Angel of Life spends its time when it is not immediately needed.

Beside me, the phone rings. My best friend asks for my help today, moving the house-fire victim whose personal belongings we tried to save from their smokey damaged confines two weeks ago. The cat is yowling to get back into the house, and I hear my stepson sliding closed the pocket door on the hallway bathroom.

On 09 February 2012, thirty years after the car accident in which I shed not one drop of blood, I left the house and went to work. It was the first time since that day when I had not spent the anniversary huddled in my home, sheltered by one pretense or another. I made a conscious decision not to succumb to fear born of superstition. Ironically, my office building stands about two blocks from the scene of that accident, and I pass through the intersection several times a week, if not daily. But I've never gone to the scene of the event on the anniversary of its occurrence before this year, for the simple reason that I have never left the house on February 9th since that day.

This year, I had lunch in Westport and parked my car near the exact spot on which I had parked that day. I crossed the intersection just a few feet from where the car had struck me. I glanced at the second story window from which Summer Shipp had seen me, and thought about the terrible fate she met at the hands of a terrible murderer who threw her body into a river where it was not found for several years. I looked at the restaurant that occupies the storefront to which I was intending to go that day. I thought about my bartender friend whom I had been planning to visit. I glanced to the east, at the intersection from which the car had turned, into the setting sun, which blinded him and kept him from realizing that just a few feet ahead, I was jaywalking without a thought in my brain that what I was doing might be dangerous.

Later that day, I went to my gentle yoga class. I stretched my artificial knee and turned the taut ankle of my somewhat atrophied right leg. I closed my eyes, and reached towards the ceiling with my extended palms, and turned my face upward. And for a brief moment, I felt again the presence of that being, who suffused me with a light more wonderful than I could have imagined, and softly bade me to go on living.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saturday Musings, 11 February 2012

Good morning,

Disturbing news of wrangling over provision of health benefits relating to birth control to all women in America through employer-provided health plans blares into the room. I'm a lapsed and recovering Catholic with miles of disdain for that institution, and a deliberate absentee from the debate of birth control and abortion, which I believe should be private, personal choices. I do not care for insurance companies, though the annual dividends from my grandfather's company supported my family in some of its more bleak years. I feel clay gathering at my feet, and I stare at the morning headlines with impatience.

None of the scenarios seem reasonable and I toss the newspaper down in disgust. These politicians cast a putrid pall on living, with their endless insistence on clouding issues with irrelevant considerations, and the fact that women must choose between their religion and good health care frustrates my sense of fairness. Ironically, some polls show that the majority of Catholic women continue to use birth control. Perhaps the Catholic Church should revise its position; or perhaps we should take separation of church and state to its logical end, and loosen the grip of religion on our political decisions.

I push aside thoughts of political and religious debates and reflect on my week. I find myself looking at houses more and more. I like my house; don't get me wrong. Its cozy contours suit me. Certainly, we could use a few more closets, and another full bathroom, but I like the cathedral ceiling in its upstairs bedroom and the charm of its cedar shake shingles.

I am not gazing at other people's dwellings with covetous eyes. To the contrary: I am content with my abode. Instead, I am trying to see behind the stucco and siding to the families within. I drive down the street in a state of distraction, glancing at shrubbery, and lingering Christmas lights, and empty planters on stone porches. At stoplights, I gaze into windows from which curtains have been drawn to allow the winter light to enter, straining to see the twitch of the hand on the drapery cords or the child playing on the carpet in front of the sofa.

From an upstairs courtroom, I gaze across the city to the rooftops of old apartment buildings. I see a cluster of seating on a balcony, and a red rectangle that might be an abandoned book. I watch a Volkswagen parallel park as I drive down a side street near my office, and see the young man exit from its driver's door with a take-out box and a Kindle cradled in his arm. He enters a brick building which boasts of converted condominiums, and I recall the apartments that used to flank its dingy hallways, decades ago, when I still spent each evening in bars watching a trumpet player who had my affection at the time. Its exterior has been redone, and I am sure the place where I used to put my hand as I waited for him to unlock his door has been cleaned, my fingerprints covered with putty and paint.

I see a trio of children pulling a red wagon in which there appears to be a kitten sleeping on a towel. They bump the rolling burden over cracks in the sidewalk and disappear behind a hedge, beyond which I see a wooden door swing outward, then in again, and I assume the little girls have made it safely to their mother's arms. I gaze at the roof line visible beyond the bare maple in their yard, at the upstairs window with its broken screen, and the pile of leaves in the hanging gutter. The sound of a piano's keys under young fingers drifts from the unseen interior. I picture the kitten, yawning, perturbed at the disturbance to its nap.

At the end of a tiring work day, I drove home last night with half of my mind on a trial set for Valentine's Day and the other half thinking about the people in the cars which surrounded me at each intersection. A horn startled me and I jerked my wheel back, thinking that I must have drifted, but the blast had nothing to do with me and I continued driving. A city bus stopped and a small group of tired women stepped onto the cold bare pavement. They trudged past my car moving from west to east, and disappeared into a block of houses like mine, air plane bungalows with small closets and screened porches.

I pulled down our newly-paved driveway, and turned my car to back into its space against the fence. I shut off the engine. The sudden silencing of National Public Radio brought an amazing stillness. I sat, for a long moment, in my messy Saturn with its back seat full of clothes , culled from my stepson's wardrobe to go to the thrift store. My neighbor's little Kia stood solidly beside me, and a light winked from my back door. My hands gripped the edge of the steering wheel, clad in their black gloves, and I huddled, briefly, inside my plaid coat, while the jangle of my nerves subsided.

After a few minutes, I opened the car door, gathered my pocketbook and the odds and ends that cluttered around me, and walked the twenty passes to my front door, closing the world out behind me as I entered the warmth of home.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Saturday Musings, 04 February 2012

Good morning,

I awakened to the small sounds made by a husband trying not to awaken his sleeping wife. My parents-in-law are leaving for Mexico this morning, and their good son is taking them to the airport. I drag my sorry carcass from the heavy veil of drug-induced, fitful slumber, and struggle down to the first floor, where beans await my grinder and the dog scratches at the back door.

I spent yesterday afternoon at my in-laws' home learning to bake the carrot cake that my newly-formed nuclear family prefers on the birthdays that three of them celebrate together. I've made this cake on one prior occasion, and failed miserably. So this year, aware of the keenness of time's passing, and the potential that I might not get too many other chances, I persuaded the family patriarch to teach me how to make the damn thing.

At one point in the pleasant afternoon, I looked across at my husband's 81-year-old mother, smiling and nodding in her chair, half-asleep, hands tucked inside her sweater. I saw the tightness of her skin across her cheeks, and the frailness of her small forehead, with its thin sweep of white hair, and its porcelain pallor. And the years fell away.

I sat beside my mother in the last days and weeks of her life. She shrank to the form that I had not expected to see for three decades. Cancer aged her prematurely. She accepted her death-by-misdiagnosis with more grace than I could have imagined. She called me once, early in the eleven-month saga, and said, An angel came to me in my dreams last night, and told me I have less than a year to live. And I'm all right with that. I did not scream into the phone that she might be, but I was not. I'm only 30! I silently pleaded. I don't have children yet! Who will be their grandmother if you die?

Her angel had not lied. By late July of the following year, we knew. Weeks, maybe a month,maybe a bit more. We surrendered to the concept of her dying, and started coping in different ways. One brother moved into the house to take the night shift, his nursing credentials an invaluable resume for helping in the last months of an ailing parent. A sister made daily stops at the house. Others came and went on the schedules that their busy lives allowed. Most of us drank too much.

I drove into St. Louis most weekends, sometimes confusing myself when I stopped for coffee then could not remember if I was coming -- or going. Is it Sunday? Then I'm on the way to Kansas City. Is it Friday? Then I'm St .Louis-bound. The waitress at the Bobber in Booneville became my ally. She gave me a free to-go cup of coffee and bade me to drive with caution, twice each weekend, for the whole long summer.

On the Sunday before my mother died, I sat beside her bed. I had liquefied her Dilaudid and leaned towards her mouth, stroking her neck the way we had been shown, to encourage weakened muscles to do the job that they wanted to abandon. Swallow, Mama, swallow, I coaxed, watching her forehead for signs of effort. Swallow, Mama, please, swallow.

Her sunken eyes bore a heavy cloud, and she stared over my shoulder at something that I could not see. My hand upon her neck trembled; the spoon that I held to her lips faltered. Tears slid down my cheeks.

And then, for less than a second, for longer than an eternity, my mother caught my gaze with her gentle brown eyes. The veil lifted, and she drew her brows together, and spoke. I am still your mother, she snapped. Don't patronize me. Startled, I replied, Yes Ma'am, a nano-second before the shroud fell back across her face.

It was the last thing I heard her say. She died on Wednesday, 21 August 1985.

My husband fears the small ripples in my mother-in-law's grasp of contemporary events. He dreads her decline, her descent into the hopelessness of dementia. I have only known her for two and a half years, and I, too, feel the impending loss that hovers. But then she smiles, and touches the surface of the cake that I have just taken from the oven, and says, with great cheer, Oh yes, it's done. Don't worry about that uneven part on the side. You can just lay the icing on a little thicker there, and no one will ever know. Her eyes twinkle, perhaps at the secret memory of the many times that she has done just that, and in fact, no one was the wiser for it.

When my husband shares his dread of losing his mother, I try to show some sympathy. I know it is expected of me. But I am a greedy girl, and what I really feel is envy for the incredible good fortune that an extra thirty years has been for him. My mother did not see the birth or adoption of many of her grandchildren, let alone their blooming adulthood. She never retired to spend the winter weeks in warmer climates. She never owned a computer, nor did she behold, with her life-long Democratic eyes, the occupation of the White House by a person of mixed race and his brown-skinned family.

The sun has risen, for what it's rise is worth in my cloud-encrusted town. In an hour, I will help lend a hand to a stranger in need, standing shoulder to shoulder with my friend Katrina and our families, as we help a victim of fire sort through her soot-covered belongings, desperate for something to salvage. So it is time to close the lid of my computer, and find warm clothes, and heavy shoes. It is time to tie up my hair in a heavy clip, and put aside my memories. It is time to get on with living.

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.