Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday Musings, 28 July 2012

Good morning:

For somewhere, it is morning. In London, I suppose; six hours ahead of us, where the Olympiads have already trod upon the British soil with their heads thrown back, jubilant eyes shining towards the cheering crowd. As I watched the 530 American athletes, a strange sensation rose within me, starting with a clenching in my stomach. I found myself overwhelmed with something that still haunts me, hours later: an undefined, unsettling emotion that leaves me wakeful and draws me from my pillow to the keyboard of my computer.

I am not sure what it means to be an American anymore. I find myself re-examining long-held notions. I sat over breakfast with a long-time Democrat activist this week, early enough that the hostess had had to unlock the front door to admit me and brought my coffee as her co-workers threw on the lights and drew open the blinds. My breakfast companion was an old acquaintance, one of the brains behind many campaigns on which I worked in my younger years.

We could not restrain ourselves from discussing the election, and I listened to his keen analysis. He acknowledged the same sort of weariness with the whole process that makes me recoil from political activism, decades after I willingly acquired a stinging sunburn working the polls from morning until long after the setting of the blazing sun. Though we agreed that neither of us could ever switch parties, we forlornly conceded the devastation that the stark divide between the two factions has occasioned. Ten years that separate us in age and cast us into different generations, but we both keenly feel the overbearing fatigue that comes from endless enthusiasm too long unrewarded.

But none of that means anything when I see the colors of my country held aloft by strong young arms, when I follow the path cut by the firm steps of American athletes marching on foreign ground, arms entwined, cell phones held aloft to record the entrance of Team USA from the first person. On the other side of the world from these young men and women, I pause in my reading of a dull Italian mystery to watch their entrance, thinking to myself, these are Americans, these are my brothers and sisters.

I remember an evening, long ago, when I stood at the base of a flagpole with my Camp Fire Girls troop. I had drawn flag duty that morning, and the sun would soon set. One of our members lowered the flag. I reached, with my small hands and clumsy fingers, to catch the cloth so that it would not touch the ground. She undid the clasps that held it. We each took two corners, and I walked backwards so that the fabric stretched between us, stumbling only a little. The sounds of Taps drifted from the loud speakers on nearby poles, each mournful note reverberating through the still air. My companion and I folded the flag as we had been taught and tirelessly practiced. My hands trembled; I pursed my lips so tightly that they grew numb.

We met in the middle, and finished the last fold, tucking the edges to form a solid triangle. I tendered the flag to my troop mate. She turned, crisply, and placed it in the waiting hands of the staff member who had come to monitor the process. Our job done, we silently marched across the empty quadrangle and made our way to the bunks which housed us.

As I lay in bed that night, sleepless even as I am this night, I reflected on the ceremony in which I had just participated. I listened to the sounds of my bunk mates settling for the night, staring out the window at the starlit Ozark sky. I had no sense of loyalty to my country at that age. Flashes of understanding only occasionally fired through my otherwise lazy synapses.

I remembered being held over the cheering crowds at a rally for John F. Kennedy, my older sister's strength hoisting me above the clamoring din so that I could slip my tiny hand into the large, warm clasp of the young senator who would soon be crowned and take his place in Camelot. A few years later, after the King had been slain, I chanted anti-Goldwater songs as I skipped rope, to the consternation of my best friend whose parents must have been Republicans. And always, I listened to my father talk of going to War, the war that followed the one that had been intended to put an end to such human folly; but I did not then equate my father's march down the Burma trail with any kind of patriotism. To me, his effort seemed sad and useless, like the work of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Somewhere in time, my vague sense of belonging to a nation took solid form. I fly the Stars and Stripes and have for the 19 years of my occupancy of my present home. I did not form my loyalty while working on any of the many elections in which I stuffed fliers and telephoned to cajole voters into leaving their comfortable recliners to vote. Those efforts benefited candidates, and my enthusiasm stemmed from allegiance to those candidates.

I hear again the haunting sound of Taps, and realize that somehow my national pride is connected with the song's long mournful notes. I close my eyes and try to trace the route from that camper's bunk, from which I listened to the sounds of crickets and the calls of night owls, to the lurching of my stomach as I watched Team USA enter the Olympic stadium. In the forty-five years between those moments, I became an American by choice.

The words of Taps drift through my mind:

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.(1)

Sorrow mingles with awe as a tableau arises unbidden in my memory: From the window of a slowly moving car, I see a row of soldiers lining the road. I slip from the car soon after it stops, and walk over unlevel ground towards a raised white tent. I stand beside my sister as a coffin is carried from the hearse, my infant son clutched against my breast. The bugler plays. Standing on a nearby rise, three riflemen lift their weapons, and discharge their three volleys into the afternoon air. Silent soldiers take the flag from the coffin, fold it as I had folded the Camp's flag so many years before, and, silent still, present it to my nephew Eric, the oldest grandson of a fallen giant.

On many afternoons in my childhood, I stood in my father's workroom and traced the contours of his Muleskinner's stirrups, gingerly touched the ivory brought home from that desolate beautiful country in which he served, and read the faded typing on the pass that he had created for himself. I held in my hands a creased photograph of my father as a young soldier. The intentness of my scrutiny creased my brow as I studied the light in his eyes, first in the picture and then in his aging face. I watched him while he told his stories, wondering if his obsession with war flowed from the terror that he saw, or because in that war, he had a sense of purpose derived from the service that he rendered to his country. I never knew. But when I stand on my porch and watch my flag tossing in the breeze, the eyes of my father come to mind.

I have just a few hours left in which to find some rest. When morning comes, I will drag myself to the office, where I will brew coffee before the other lawyer and our two clients arrive. From the seeds planted in a late-afternoon call at the end of the Friday workday, the terms of a settlement will be painfully negotiated. Signatures will be cast upon the lines at the bottom of the final drafts. Notary seals will be affixed; and hands shaken. When the meeting is done, I will find a coffee shop with a television, and for an hour or so, nothing will matter but the quest of my fellow Americans for gold.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

(1) written by Horace Lorenzo Trim

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday Musings, 21 July 2012

Good morning,

A shrill bird sounds its six-note call high above our home. The impatiens have slightly wilted in their clay pots but have otherwise endured the vicious heat of the last week. I saved several pansies by transferring them from the open deck to the shade of the high-ceilinged porch, but the Gerber daisies droop on their wicker stands. In their lamentable state, they seem to reproach me.

I think about the aging cedar that we removed last year, and gaze over the railing at the holly bush struggling to rise in its place. Though the basement floor drain seems to run significantly better without a steady diet of cedar needles, I still miss the spindly, struggling majesty of the tree. From kindergarten's task of memorizing the Joyce Kilmer poem, to senior year, lying beneath a tree with my religion case, gazing into its boughs and learning to meditate, I have been drawn to trees.

A day or two ago, I drove down the long hill on Broadway, leaving my office, descending to the Plaza and the Brush Creek area. The installation of this Corps of Engineers project insulted Kansas Citians by the stripping of old groves of trees. The walkway depicted in models as tree-lined had nothing at its inception but spindly newly-planted saplings with their wooden supports and delicate leaves. But now those tiny trees have grown, and as I turned the corner to traverse the northern edge of the creek, I smiled with the pleasure that a city dweller reserves for nature.

And then, under the swooping bough of one of the taller trees, I spied a scraggly three-some: Cross-legged, dirty, in tattered clothes, with piles of grungy belongings pushed to the middle of the group. I've seen them there before -- or ones like them. The homeless of Kansas City; the disenfranchised, the drop-outs, the derelict. My friend Katrina brings them food from her church's kitchen, and has even befriended several, including one who later met a sad and lonely death, famously, the news of which darkened the pages of our local paper for weeks on end. I have never joined her efforts; I have never approached the cluster of men who gather by the side of the Creek, passing around a bottle, or a plate of food from a nearby restaurant, or something crumbled in the depths of a paper bag.

I drove past the men without slowing, without even thinking about the protein bars in my purse that I could have stopped to give them. I averted my eyes from the filth of their clothes, and the streaks of grey in their uncut hair. I glanced back only once, before the light turned green, but from the angle at which I looked, I could see only glimpses of them through the thickness of the tree's summer crown. The light changed. I turned the corner, and made my way south, leaving them to whatever fate the evening held for them. I closed my eyes and drew in a little breath, feeling a small little clutch in the pit of my stomach, and unable to restrain myself from checking to be sure the windows were up and the doors were locked.

The rest of my trip home afforded me views of other trees, just as beautiful as the young ones on the Plaza's edge. Lining Brookside Boulevard and rising from the yards of the old homes, they stood tall, serene, undisturbed by gatherings of men with nowhere else to go to cool themselves. The occasional bench, situated in a carefully chosen spot, awaited a cheerful child or a tired dog-walker. But none appeared. The wind occasionally tossed the long branches. At stoplights on my route, I watched songbirds swoop from perch to verdant perch. Other than me, nobody seemed to be taking special note of the trees in my neighborhood. Nobody sought refuge under their boughs.

I pulled into my driveway, and found myself looking at the rising growth in my neighbor's yard. His trees tower over his rooftop, planted at the fresh start of our 100-year-old neighborhood. His children have grown, and nobody sits under his trees anymore. He has taken away the chairs that once rested at the base of his biggest maple, and let the yard reclaim the bare spot where his sons once played basketball far into the night.

The trees of my neighborhood endure. They shelter the homes in which we live our lives, the homes we vacuum, and clean, and decorate with meticulously chosen trinkets. Those trees sway in what little breezes kiss them, and send their wide shadows over our shingled houses, reaching high to block the sun and give us what coolness they can. But you never see anyone sitting, cross-legged and comfortable, unclean and unaware, in their comforting shade.

In the highest branches of my own maple, I see brown leaves, burnt, I imagine, by the brutal sun of our summer. The tree has regained most of its shape since being split by an ice storm years ago, and has spread wide, and grown taller, and its girth guards my house. As I sit, quiet, contemplative, on the deck, with my neck crooked back, a realization rises within me. But then the bird gives a final call, and whatever wisp of knowledge whispered in my soul slips away.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Musings, 14 July 2012

Good morning,

The heat finally eased its relentless grasp on our lives. For the last few days, the morning's cool has stretched later than it had for weeks, and rain kissed the surfaces of our world. My foggy mood cleared.

But then I opened the newspaper on Thursday, and learned of the passing of one of the legends of my younger years, William F. O'Sullivan. Billy O. The last of the group of heroes who welcomed me into this often brutal life of law. I remember him best on a bar stool, cigarette in one hand, rocks glass in the other; or standing off to the side in a courtroom crowded with dark-suited defense lawyers, in his muted green serge, short-clipped hair, crinkled, deep blue eyes. Never less than cheerful; never without his grin. Billy O.

For Billy O's sake, or to appease the rise of bile within me at the thought of his death, I donned a dress and drove to a Catholic Church in Waldo yesterday. I parked against a barricade of concrete rubble, and tip-toed round the sign that said, "Sidewalk Closed", crossing over on a red light, ignoring the glares of drivers who had the right of way. I drew in a long, deep gulp of sweet, cool air and pulled the glass door outward, stepping across the threshold of the one place I have promised myself I wouldn't have to go. But for Billy O's sake, I dared.

I slipped passed the obligatory funeral guy, in his poorly fitted suit and somber expression. I gently placed my card into the waiting basket, beside the picture of Billy O and his wife, gleaming with love, unconcerned with the lens turned upon them. I dipped one knee, as only cradle Catholics do, and slipped into a pew, lowering my small frame onto the hard wooden bench just about the time a man high above the congregation started the next decade of the Rosary.

My eyes drifted around the church. I saw familiar faces. Silent men, lawyers who shared a stronger connection to Billy O than I do, by virtue of their having maintained the bond and not let it lapse through dint of inertia. Clutches of weeping women, some of whom I think must have worked at the courts. At the front, rows of family, people I did not know, his children who were small when I last saw them, grandchildren born long after I slipped out of the wide, welcoming swathe of Billy O's charm and became just another lawyer he helped along the way, with a life of my own, and my own album full of disappointments, dreams, and devilment.

To the right, a flat screen displayed a steady stream of pictures of the event's of Billy O's life: days on the dock; weddings; parades; parties; stolen, quiet moments. Billy O invited me to a few gatherings in his home, back in the day, but twenty-five years, three marriages, and a grown child have accumulated in my own album since then, and I did not recognize any of the scenes depicted in his memorial. Did I call him a friend? He had been, I suppose; but more than that, a mentor, and someone whom I would have been better for having not let slip from the pages of my life.

I felt a sob escape my lips, and rose. That little dip of the knee; a turn; and I stumbled back down the aisle. I saw people whom I have known for decades standing at the back of the church. I squeezed a few elbows, smiled back at a few faces, then thrust myself out into the air of a late summer afternoon.

As I drove home, sobbing, I scolded myself. I knew that my tears were not for Billy O but for the worthlessness of my sorrow. I had heard that Billy O was sick. I knew that he had had several ugly bouts of cancer over the years. Even as distant as I keep myself from the lawyers who occupied those past days, who sat on those bar stools and drank those tumblers of Scotch, I heard that he had worsened. And I made no effort then, and little effort now. I scrawled my name on the bottom of a card, beside that of the husband he never met, and made the funeral guy get the book out even though he told me he planned to display it after the service. I wrote a little note to Billy O's wife on the line beside my name, and left. I cried crocodile tears, more for my own failure than for the loss of Billy O, I think.

I parked my car behind our house, and turned to walk up the driveway. At that moment, my son's old white cat slipped from behind a bush, and soundlessly collapsed onto the asphalt. I hastened my step, and dropped my pocketbook. I saw her face, and knew that death was not done with me. I spoke her name, and she opened her eyes, and I bent down to put my hands on her. With a shudder, she died. My first thought was of my son; my second, that she must have been waiting for me to come home.

When Patrick left for college, he extracted a promise from me not to let any of the pets die before he graduated. I felt the press of my broken vow. On the telephone, sitting on my porch beside his little cat's silent form under its towel shroud, I told him that if he had only graduated a year early, I would have been able to keep that commitment.

My husband came home and we buried Sprinkles in the little pet cemetery on the side of our house, by Tiger, and Chief, and Chocolate. Her grave marker is a large rock stolen from Yellowstone National Park by Patrick and his friend Chris Taggart. She rests under the branches of a mysterious but beautiful bush which grows there, the bush that shades all of our fallen pets in their last sleep. I said a prayer for her, and thanked her for her years of service to my family. I closed my eyes, and sent a little thanks to Heaven, where I am sure Billy O sits by the side of a celestial lake, his tan legs stretched out, a dust of sand on his bare feet, a cold drink by his side, grinning that Billy O grin, raising his clear blue eyes to the wide patch of sky above him.

Muguwmpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

RIP Sprinkles, our first pet, 08 June 1994 - 13 July 2012. A life well lived.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Saturday Musings, 07 July 2012

Good morning,

The heat has broken, at least for one sweet morning, though the potted plants on my deck have shriveled despite the constant watering and desperate deployment of a spray bottle. A few petunias gamely struggle; the begonias sighed and died; the Gerber daisies have shriveled; one of the two bright pink plants, the names of which I no longer recall, turned to dusty shreds. The other has blackened buds, hard and sad, that foretell its pending demise. I should have brought the plants into the house when the heat wave struck, I tell myself; now it is too late.

In times past, when the children whose high, happy voices gave vibrant life to this home cavorted in the driveway, we dragged a large pool to the backyard, stood it in the middle of a twelve-foot wide sand pile, and created our own beach. A Little Tykes slide angled over the side of the pool into the shimmering water. In a box, in the attic maybe -- or on a high shelf in the basement -- pictures of those summers rest against old letters, fading drawings made from Cray Pas, and gilded, ribbonned, letters of commendation.

As I conspired with him the other day to orchestrate a repair to a much-cherished guitar belonging to my son, my friend Alan paused and raised his hand. Do you remember this, he said, palm turned towards me, keeping me still, while Alan summoned the memory. Do you remember when you said, "A boy? What on earth am I going to do with a boy?"

I remember.

I lay in a gigantic heap, on a gurney, in a sterile room in Little Rock, at the University of Arkansas' genetic testing laboratory. A technician sat on a low stool between me and a monitor, with an ultra sound wand in one gloved hand, the head of the wand pressed against my belly. Do you want to know the gender, she asked. No, I don't, I replied. It's a boy! she crowed, unable to contain herself.

A boy? A boy? What on earth am I going to do with a boy?

I have my answer now.

With that boy, I learned so many life's lessons that they fill my heart and spill out into the world around me.

That boy announced, in a baby's voice, that he would be the one to get the newspaper from our apartment doorstep, the first winter we moved back to Kansas City. He could barely reach the knob of our front door, but turn it he did. He bent down to get the Kansas City Star for me, the January before he turned two, and each day thereafter until we moved in May. Your legs don't work so good, Mommy, he told me. Patrick get the paper for you.

When I fell on the ice at the end of our driveway, in the home we bought that year, he toddled down the street to our neighbors' home down to get help. He was two and a half.

When I tripped over a gutter hiding under the snow in the dog run one dark night the next winter, that boy felt that I had been outside too long, and telephoned the same neighbor. All ten of my toes were broken. The neighbor found me lying, nearing numbness, at the side of the house on a bed of crystalline snow.

At five, that boy reached down into a hotel swimming pool to grab my shoulder as I sputtered and struggled, gasping for breath, my spastic legs unable to propel me from the deep end. He held me out of the water, patiently waiting for someone to come. A passing guest saw this stunning tableau through the large glass window that fronted on the lobby, and ran into the pool area. Through my coughing, as I sagged against the concrete, I heard the man say, You did good, son, you did real good. Your Mom's going to be okay.

With that boy, I climbed a mountain, conquered my fear of heights, and stood on the edge of a canyon to watch a cluster of birds swoop into the depths from which we had come.

Beside that boy, I journeyed deep into Carlsbad Cavern, beyond the accessible trail, raising my eyes to see the wondrous formations above me, slithering through narrow passages, my hand in his small one, his seven-year-old frame leading the way.

I traversed uneven ground, leaning on a walker, with a newly operated knee, to see that boy receive his Arrow of Light, which to this day nestles in a box on my dresser.

I walked the halls of the Mayo Clinic with that boy, and watched him pedal his bike around a lake in Rochester. I laughed when he asked if we could live in that hotel forever. With that boy, I sat in a small office to hear the verdict: The doctors in Kansas City were wrong. Your boy does not have Addison's disease.

A year later, I ignored that boy's determined refusal to board a plane to Mexico, despite the weeks of planning, the months of speaking Spanish by text message, the doctor's clearance to travel, the hours of filling out paperwork for the scholarship. I ignored his expressions of apprehension. I knew the time for him to fly had arrived.

Six weeks later, I barely recognized him as he followed other passengers into the waiting area, with his dark tan, his once-long hair now in short, thick curls around his head. I was not just the tallest kid in the group, he chuckled. I was the tallest person in the whole country! Later, after we dropped off the friend who had ridden to the airport with me, he softly admitted: I am so glad you made me go!

I quietly listened to that boy tell me a classmate had said that he was "too white to go to this school", and I smiled, three years later, when that boy was elected president of his senior class. There were five candidates, he said, dismissively. I just split the vote. Still.

I slid into a ditch in a blizzard with that boy, en route to my cousin's funeral, our hearts racing. We looked at each other with something between terror and glee. With the white raging all around us, we crept up the exit ramp in our Chevy Blazer, slowly edging into the parking lot of a restaurant, where we ordered soup and waited out the storm.

That boy has walked me down two aisles, visited me in three hospitals, traveled to ten or twelve states with me, and invented characters and voices to make me laugh in times when my despair permeated the air.

I walked across urban Chicago campuses with that boy, assuring him that yes, he could manage far from home. I stood at the entry to a broad green campus, in Indiana, in March of 2009, and told him that we would find a way to make his attendance there happen.

I watched him struggle through that first year of college, and regroup, the summer after.

I watched him soar for the next two years, with friends, heartbreaks, good grades, and a crummy summer job from which he learned a valuable lesson. I have read the stories published under his name in his campus literary review, year after year. I've sat in a distant room, listening to the increasingly complex sounds of his guitar.

And a month ago, I packed that Chevy Blazer, and sent him off to Hollywood.

At 1:50 p.m., CDST, on Sunday, 08 July 2012, that boy will vanish. He will be 21 at that very moment. He will stand as he has always stood despite his many fears and trepidations: Smiling that slight, steady smile. Determined, strong, capable. And at long last, I will have my answer.

What on earth am I going to do with a boy?

Watch him grow to be a man.

Happy Birthday, Patrick Charles Corley. My pride in you is boundless.

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.