Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve Musings

Halloween, 1982.  I flew into Helena to visit a guy who'd been my lover during my second year of law school.  I can't claim that he was more or less than that.  This man owned a plate, a fork, a knife, a spoon, a cup and a pan.  With his food scale, such constituted the kitchen equipment of my friend in those days.  He lived a sparse life, and did not lightly welcome intruders.

The Blue Sky plane ride across the mountains terrified me.  At that time, I had not yet flown in a Cessna 150 during an ice storm, landing in a frozen cornfield; nor taken a 206 out of a small Louisiana airport on the heels of a thunderstorm having contractions four minutes apart.  I had not yet had a private pilot ask if I was nervous to fly with him after his recent crash -- of which, until he mentioned it, I had been unaware.  No, in those days, I had flown in nothing other than a jumbo jet from St. Louis to Denver, and that October flight from Billings to Helena grabbed my gut.  I fell into David's arms and whispered, "Holy Crud! That's a small plane!"  A twenty-seater -- ha.  Little did I know how much smaller planes could get.

Snow fell around us as we skittered on icy streets to his apartment.  Arms entwined, we walked down the streets of his neighborhood to a small grocer.  His diabetic needs jived with my vegetarian sensibility.  Back upstairs, I presented him with my "host" gift:  A second plate, a second set of silverware, a cup to use with my morning coffee.  He made his standard dinner:  Baked potatoes, steamed veggies, white fish cooked in his only pan with a tiny scrap of margarine.  We drank water.  It tasted like nectar to me.

A day or two later, Halloween loomed.   We decided that was as good a day as any to drive to Glacier Park.  Through small town after small town we rounded the curves of the road up the Rockies, their majesty beckoning.  He explained the meaning of the groups of white crosses on the  roadside:  one cross for every life claimed by failing brakes or speeding drivers.  The grim testaments stunned me.  We drove on, on, higher and higher, while David told me bout his work with Native Americans living on the area reservations.

The wind howled a bit as we neared the park.  A storm gathering miles away in Canada threatened the upper areas, beyond us, farther than we intended to go.  We pulled his little Ford over to the side of the road, and contemplated his chainless tires while the snow flurried around us.  Glancing back and forth, eyeing each other, measuring our bravery, we shrugged, climbed back into the vehicle, and proceeded forward.

At the entrance to the pass through which David wanted to travel, a large sign heralded us.  TURN BACK, DOROTHY, it might as well have said.  What it actually told us did cause a momentary hesitation.  The pass ahead had been closed to all  without chains unless driving ATVs.  Rangers could pass, presumably, and lumberjacks if any were ever allowed into the park.  But ordinary folks, driving Fords with old snow tires and without chains, entered at their own peril.  Another moment when we eyed each other, the one daring the other to suggest we admit defeat.  David shifted into gear, and we crept forward.

A short ways into the park proper, David stopped in a turn-around area to give himself an insulin shot.  I got out and stood beside him, sheltering his thin frame from the sharp bite of the winter air.  He spoke in a low voice, telling me to glance over the railing at the glacier.


I saw only grey, as far as I could stretch my neck in any direction.  A snow storm, rapidly moving sleet, low-lying clouds or long-clinging fog.

No, he assured me.  That's a glacier.

I stood transfixed, staring into what a sign told me  was St. Mary's Lake.  A soundless snow fell around us.  David finished the simple act that kept him alive, and beckoned me back to the car.  I paused a moment, unable to turn my back on what I had beheld.  Finally, I followed him, and pulled the door shut, sealing us into the car's warmth.

I remember little of the rest of our visit to Glacier Park.  We spent the day driving through nearly impassable roadways, venturing as far north as we thought his car would take us, before turning around and slipping back down through the small towns, slowing for the chattering trick-or-treaters on the cobblestones and sidewalks.  We did not speak.  Words seemed unnecessary.

A week after my return to Kansas City, a parcel arrived from Montana.  It held the red plastic dishes that I had brought him, and the spoon, fork and knife.  The little red cup.  I put them away. Years later, my son would take his lunch from them, oblivious to what they once meant.  But when he was three, or maybe four, and innocently asked me where God lived, my answer came without hesitation:  Glacier Park, I said.  One day, I hope you get to go there.

Happy New Year, everyone.  May all your parks hold glaciers, may your holidays be filled with awe, and may your place setting rest beside one at which someone you love sits, smiling, waiting for you to join them.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday Musings, 29 December 2012

Good morning,

An hour's worth of eloquence just went off to the land of accidentally deleted material, and I am loathe to reconstruct it.  I curse this technology. My old Mac has died; my son's Dell jumps to delete every time I hit the space key, and I drafted the Musings on my tablet.  When I tried to copy the material, the entire thing deleted.  While "Alt, C" meant "copy" on the Mac, it evidently means "cut" on the tablet.  Pardon me, therefore, for the resulting brevity.  The memories of Christmas and New Year's Eve once deftly here recorded now exist only in my brain. I swear, what I wrote shone with brilliance.

My little brother visited last night, with his son Deion, en route to St. Joseph where Deion is even now registering for a baseball showcase, at which a hundred small colleges, D2 and D3, will gaze on him and other high-schoolers, determining to which of them they might make overtures.  Frank's call asking if they could stay with us came on the heels of my early New Year's resolution  to repair my relationships with my siblings.  That resolution, in turn, followed a quiet Christmas with my in-laws, partaking in their rituals, missing the rituals of my family of birth.  My life turns another circle, my hair turns a little more grey, and the time of my reconciliation looms.  I might be a bit belated in my efforts to mend the tears in my life's fabric, but I have taken up my needle, and some good, strong thread.

Frank and I toured my home, gazing on things that once belonged to my mother.  We speculated on where each stood in our childhood home.  He touched the blue pitcher with a large but gentle hand, and stood in front of the picture of Mary with the babe, surrounded by shepherds.  "In the hallway?" he queried, and that jived with my memory.  A red glass cornucopia rested on the top shelf of my mother's china cabinet.  Dust now lies on each of the handful of pieces that I have from my mother's home.  We only briefly mentioned the items stored in a brother's basement, which apparently vanished in a burglary.  It's all gone; there's no need, no use, no reason to wonder where it really went.

As Frank and Deion backed out of our driveway, my son stood beside me, holding a cup of coffee.  "I played light sabers with that kid," he recalled.  "We used trash can lids for shields."  A long time ago, another century, another city.  The cold drove us back into the house, where we washed dishes, and brewed another pot of coffee.  Then my son decided to sleep for a few more hours, and I took my coffee upstairs, where I wrote my usual drivel, though slightly better, I'd like to think, now that it has been accidentally deleted.

On New Year's Eve, many decades ago, my brothers and sisters and I banged on Club aluminum pots with wooden spoons, calling New Year's wishes to neighbors who stood on their own porches. Gunfire, fireworks and honking horns rang out over our neighborhood.  When the commotion subsided, my mother beckoned us back into the house where hot cocoa and pastries awaited.  We sat at the breakfast table, straining against sleep, making silly jokes to stay awake.  Eventually, my mother chased us off to our rooms, and we snuggled under the covers,  confident that when we awakened, the dawn of a fresh new year would offer hope for our heart's desire.

From my little desk, where the Saturday sun struggles through the heavy clouds and streams through my window, I bid you each a very Happy New Year.  I hope that 2013 holds joy, and prosperity, and the comfort of cheerful companions.   If you have torn fabric of your own to restore, I hope for you, the chance to smooth the raveled edges of thread.  At midnight on December 31st, take up a wooden spoon, go outside, and make some noise.  Then drink a little hot chocolate, and nibble on some cookies   without regard to your vow to lose weight.  And sleep.  When you awaken, a whole year will be ahead of you, a   year with new chances to forge strong bonds, whole empty calendar pages to fill with delightful adventures, and open hours when you can settle down to browse the pages of the book you've been longing to read, or listen to the dreams of your children and the ambitions of your spouse. 

A new year dawns.  Make the best of it!

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday Musings

Good morning,

I have enjoyed the last year of musing with and for my family, friends, colleagues and the wide web of interconnectedness through Facebook and Twitter.  As you might have gleaned from last weeks Musings, this holiday holds particularly bittersweet connotations for me. I struggle with the meaning of Christmas not as a Christian holiday, but as a personal milestone, with all of its laughter, love, and longing.

 My little brother Stephen Patrick, whose middle name I borrowed for my son's first name, came into this world on 25 December 1959, and exited this world, sadly, by his own hand, in June of 1997.  Each year, Christmas marks another birthday that he will not celebrate; another German chocolate cake not baked, another gaggle of his beloved nieces and nephews that will not occur.   I have a particularly awesome son, and two fabulous stepchildren, a sweet husband, sisters by birth and by choice that immeasurably enrich my life, and in-laws, friends and co-workers who give me much personal validation and pleasure.  But the Stevie-Pat shaped hole in my universe cannot ever be filled.  I find myself alternating between tears of unending sorrow, and smiles sparked by unquenchable images of his magnificence.  I miss my mother, who died too young, and long to hear her voice.  But the fierceness with which I miss my little brother still ravages me at times, and especially, at this time.

I read about survivors of suicide and feel a kinship with the message of their furrowed foreheads and their strained smiles.  I tell myself that it is time to forget, or at least, let go.  And 360 or so days of each year, I more or less am able to do just that.  The exploits and accomplishments of my child by birth and my children by marriage distract me. And perhaps "distract" fails to convey the true import of my children to me.  My life could not have been as rich without them, nor as meaningful; nor could my home feel as bright, and joyous.   Most of the time, I don't even call my son "Stephen" very much anymore. I did that for the first year so after my brother's death, and my son seemed to understand despite his youth.  Well I remember the time I repeatedly called Patrick and his best friend Chris, then 8 and 9 years old, to the kitchen using my little brothers' names.  I did not understand why they wouldn't come. Only later did I learn that Chris had said to Patrick, "Who are Frank and Steve?" and Patrick had replied, "Oh, that's us.  You're Frank, I'm Steve."  Neither boy ever complained.

But that's mostly faded, 12 or 13 years later, 15 years after Steve's death.  I write about him once in a while.  I laugh at a particularly cute thing he did in his childhood, or a downright sassy antic of his young adulthood.  I stop, in the corridor of the courthouse sometimes, and think about his demons, his delights, and his daring.  Then I put aside the recollection, and move through the rest of my day.

At Christmas, though, I cannot do that yet. I remember his face and the sauciness of his step.  He entered snapping, calling everybody by some pet name and picking any child within reach from the floor and dancing through the room.  I see his face in his daughter's face, my niece Chelsea Rae; I see a bit of him in my son.  I think:  This year he would have been 53.  Fifty-three.  I gasp:  He has lost 14 years; and fourteen years of him has been stolen from us.

And so, this Christmas, the Christmas that my brother who "made everything Even", would have been 53, here is my wish for all of you:  That you find yourselves surrounded by those whom you cherish, and that if you have lost someone whom you cherished, your memories of them will sustain you. 

In the end, the quality of the gifts purchased carries no significance, nor the heft of the cash in your wallet, nor the richness of the food on your table.  If you have warmth, and nourishment, and clothing; and a place in which to sleep; you have enough.  If you have love, and if you are cherished, your treasures abound. 

Death deprives us of so much.  Death by murder devastates, as those who lost children in Newtown can attest.  Death by suicide leaves an awful, gnawing emptiness, overwhelming guilt, and looming, unanswerable questions. 

So:  This holiday -- whatever your holiday, whether religious or just seasonal -- find your own path to serenity.  Lift your hand, and place it upon the arm of someone in pain to ease their suffering.  Tote a meal to a 93-year-old veteran.  Turn the covers down for your spouse.  Brew tea and sit with your aging parent, or even, your not-so-aged one.  Meet your children where they dwell; see their homes, let them fix dinner for you, their dinner, served in the new style of their own traditions, putting aside your insistence on your own way of doing things.  I do not have to remind you, that this could be their last holiday among you.   Make the most of it.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday Musings, 22 December 2012

Good morning,

Christmas arrives early at my home this year.  Our daughter Cara and her adorable boyfriend Ben leave mid-day tomorrow for Omaha, where he now lives and where Cara will join his family for Christmas.  So our stockings have been hung by the chimney, with considerable care; and tomorrow our three children, Cara, Patrick and Mac; Cara's Ben; and my husband and I will nibble on  pastries while opening presents, three days early, but with no less exuberance than we might feel on the day itself.  Last evening we had a royal Christmas Eve feast, enjoyed in a home cleaned by our two sons while Jim traveled to Topeka and I tied various loose ends at the office.  Now the house sleeps; and I sit in my oak rocker, flanked by a stack of brightly-wrapped packages on my right and the soft glow of light from an old brass lamp, to the left.

I cannot sleep.  I envy my husband, who might awaken in the wee hours at times, lying awake, calculating, worrying, fretting over his business deals, but who falls asleep within seconds of his head resting on his pillow.  My brain races, my ears ring, my legs jump; I do not fall asleep easily.  But I have a warm home, and electronics to provide distractions, and wealth that's modest by any standard but sufficient to provide the salmon on which we dined last evening, so a little sleeplessness might be a small thing in an otherwise comfortable existence.

The week went well.  Magic flowed from my finger tips.  Every endeavor on which I toiled came to good result.  A trial averted with an excellent settlement; legal custody restored with a deft argument; payment tendered by clients whose bills I had forgotten; and even the accident which damaged our daughter's car to the lamentable, unexpected burden of six-hundred dollars could have been worse:  she suffered no injury, and was able to tell the story of steering her wobbly car to a repair shop  with bright eyes, an easy smile, and considerably more calm than I would have felt, had I been the one who had driven my car across a sheet of black ice, into a curb, in rush hour traffic.

Yesterday, my husband telephoned from his office at one end of the corridor in our professional suite, to mine.  Hesitatingly, he asked if I would join himself and a few business associates for dinner that evening.  A thousand chores could have distracted me.  I had not finished the Christmas shopping for our accelerated celebration.  I had risen early to make the drive to Clay County for a trial setting and then journeyed in haste back to Jackson County, where I tried the second day of a custody case in which my client had been unrepresented during the first day, an unenviable position for both of  us.  The cumulative effect of a rigorous schedule prompted me to consider refusing, but some wistful note in his voice stopped me.  I agreed to meet them, after I did a couple of Christmas-related errands on the Plaza.

I guided my Saturn into one of the 27 curb-side handicapped designated spaces that I bullied the city into allocating to Kansas City's little replica of Seville.  Cars edged past me as I struggled from the vehicle and maneuvered to the curb, where I joined a swirl of pedestrians juggling shopping bags and laughing toddlers, strolling from corner to corner in the chilly afternoon air.  I stood waiting for the light to change, watching a little gaggle of college students, the girls with their long, shining hair, the boys in close-fitting cable-knit sweaters, walking with entwined hands, bright-eyed, hopeful and happy.

At that moment, the face of my brother Stephen rose before me. Another Christmas, my first in Kansas City, when I had driven home to St. Louis for the holiday at the tag end of finals week.  Steve and I went to some huge mall together.   He seemed to have a huge lot of money, which he dolled out to every Salvation Army bell-ringer we passed.  He bought masses of presents for everyone in our family and coaxed me into letting him subsidize my own gift-buying.  He bought himself several pairs of cashmere socks.  It's going to be my birthday, after all, he gaily reminded me.  Our Christmas present in 1959, standing over six-feet 21 years later, wearing a brown wool jacket over crisp blue jeans, flirting with the sales clerks, opening doors for older ladies who beamed at his Irish eyes.

We strolled through the mall with our arms looped together, our parcels thumping against our legs, his deep chuckle endlessly sounding through the corridors, wafting to the ceilings, reflecting in the bright eyes of people we met.  They envied me; I saw it in their faces.  They couldn't help themselves.  They beheld his six-foot frame, his broad shoulders, his strong chin and clear blue eyes, and felt the vibrancy moving through him.

Lady, are you all right? The sound of a voice close to my ears brought me back to 2012, to the day before the world would not end, to the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, where I had stepped from the curb in a dream.  The face of my brother vanished in a wink, and I spared my savior a small, wan smile before continuing to the far side of the intersection.

I heard the bell ringer before I saw him.  His arm moved unceasingly up and down, the brass bell in his small brown hand clanging relentlessly, calling for charity, for contributions, for passers-by to dig down into the bottoms of their pocketbooks and change purses for coins to throw into the red bucket.  I met the man's brown eyes, set deep in his wrinkled face, as I slipped a handful of coins into the slot, listening for the clunk, trying to determine how generous others had been.  God bless you, he intoned, without letting the bell cease.  Thank you, I answered, with a bit more enthusiasm than I felt.  Then I asked him if he was cold.  I'm just fine, ma'am, he assured me.  I been just fine since ten o'clock this mornin', when I started ringing, and I'll be just fine til eight when my shift ends, and then I'll go home and  get me some soup.  Merry Christmas, God bless you, and he rang his bell, and spared smile after smile to the shoppers who pushed past me to drop their own coins into the familiar red bucket.

I moved beyond him, into the Barnes & Noble. A young boy held the door open for me.  The brightness of the place stung my eyes, where, to my surprise, tears had risen.  A terrible longing to see my brother's face overwhelmed me.  I wanted to sit next to him while he ate German Chocolate cake and lamented being born on Christmas so that he had to share his birthday with everyone else.  I yearned to dance with him, my small stumbling frame encircled in his guiding arms.  I longed to hear him call me Mare bear, to watch him stroll among the Christmas shoppers, to listen to his rambling accounts of whatever pursuits distracted him that day.  But I never will.  He will never age past 37; he is frozen in time, and I miss him terribly.

A couple of hours later, with warm food in my belly, I walked the two blocks from the restaurant back to Barnes & Noble.  The same bell ringer still summoned folks to his side.  He smiled as I negotiated around a group of children jostling each other for a chance to donate the pennies and nickels tendered by their parents.  You have a good night now, ma'am, the bell-ringer called out to me.  I do not know what he made of the sudden flow of tears down my cheeks.  He never stopped ringing his bell, nor dropped his broad smile, but he reached out his other hand and gently touched my arm.

In a few hours, this house will ring with the happy sounds of my family.  It is time to lay my ghosts to rest, and to sleep, though I am not sure if I can do either.  I do not  pretend to be Christian, nor to celebrate Christmas as anything other than an annual opportunity to choose gifts for those whose presence in my life makes every good thing better, and every bad thing easier to bear.  I have no quarrel with those for whom Christmas has a different significance.  For me, though, it is a time for remembering, a time for honoring, a time for cherishing, and a time for coming together.  Years ago, when my son Patrick was three or four, a heavy-set lady clad in a billowing coat bent down to chuck him under the chin.  Do you know whose birthday comes on Christmas, she asked him, in a shrill voice.  Yes, I do! he chortled.  It's Uncle Steve's birthday!

Ah, yes.  And so it is.  Happy birthday, Stephen Patrick Corley, wherever you are.  I hope you sit on the banks of a broad blue river, beneath the branches of a willow tree, peaceful and easy.

From the Holmes House, to your house, I send sincere wishes that everyone you love will journey safely to your side.  I bid you the best of times, the most joyous of days, filled with  love, and laughter.  Merry Christmas, and God bless us, each, and every one.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday Musings, 15 December 2012

Good morning,

Ten days remain between us and December 25th; and as the steam rises from my coffee cup, I think of what I have left to accomplish.  Three hearings, perhaps a fourth judging by a message left on Friday by a desperate prospective client; a half-dozen presents to buy; the tree to finish decorating; and meals to cook, including finding a recipe for palatable gluten-free cookies.  In between those tasks, there are clients to harass for payment so that I can afford all those presents; and year-end taxes to turn my salon-colored hair grey; and one or two outstanding judgments to draft. 

And as I raise the mug to take another sip, internally grumbling, my eyes chance to fall on today's banner headline, and the fretting falls away, leaving only a well of gratitude.  One word spans the columns, in three-inch type:  Horrific.

When our suite-mate rushed into the office to tell us about the massacre in Connecticut, my stomach lurched.  Dear God, not more children killed, but my prayer came too late.  And as I sat in front of my computer screen, a wellspring of conflicting emotions flooded my chest:  Those poor babies; that monster; how are the parents going to struggle through this?

And one other thought rose unbidden, a kind of emotional deja vu, which sent my heart's call to the children huddled under those desks:  How terrified they must have been.  And I sank back, back, back two decades, to the path I trod down a hall of Kansas University Hospital, behind a rapidly striding doctor.  A path of which I might have spoken here before today, but one that repeats so often in my mind, so rarely described, that I see now, I should take others down that path with me, so that one kernel of truth might be exposed.

A friend had taken me to KU because I felt pains in my "right lower quadrant" and my temperature had elevated.  Neither of us knew with certainty what the signs of appendicitis might be.  We each had memories of rudimentary instructions in first aid class, and the pain combined with the fever seemed to suggest trouble.  So off we went, two recent transplants to Kansas City, to the closest hospital.

An overworked resident suggested that I might have hours to wait before lab results confirmed or dispelled our worries. I decided to go out into the waiting room and release my friend.  No cell phones in 1981, but I assumed that a nurse would let me call my friend to come get me when they decided I could go home.  So I pulled my jeans onto my skinny legs, exited the exam room clutching the hospital gown closed, and turned right.

The emergency room corridors formed an inner square with the exam rooms on the outer perimeter and the nurses' station sitting squarely in the middle.  I could not know that precisely at the moment when I acted from concern that Joyce would spend the entire night slumped in an uncomfortable chair watching reruns of old sitcoms, Bradley R. Boan entered the emergency room armed with a shotgun and a bad disposition.  He then lurched forward a few steps, into the very corridor which I traversed.  Between him and me, Dr. Marc Beck strode, long-limbed and intent, chart in hand, probably not even watching ahead of him, oblivious to the fact that there would be no more Christmases, no more patients, no more life.

When the shotgun blast sounded, I dove down an intersecting corridor and ran towards what I believed to be the exit. I had chosen badly:  I found only an abandoned waiting room, chairs strewn with jackets, coats, and magazines. I stood against the wall, frantic, listening to the screams, the shoving of furniture, the hurrying into rooms, the barring of doors.  A second blast, as Boan dispatched with a patient's mother sitting in a wheelchair to the right of the entrance, savagely and senselessly,

And then:  an eerie silence, punctuated only by the occasional ringing of an unattended phone.

I gazed in front of me, at my own grim face reflected in a darkened window.  I realized that if I could see the reflection of the corridor in the window, anyone coming into the corridor could see me. I dove for the closest door, into an examining room, where I waited for what seemed an eternity, alone, under the examination table, the door blocked by a cart that I had shoved in front of it.

The evening progressed: eventually, all of us were herded into one room, and later, escorted to the dark parking structure in which KBI agents had shot light after light, hoping to flush out the suspect whom they thought was hiding there.  As it happens, he had long since fled, and would not be captured until he unleashed his fury on another place of healing: a church.  He would be caught, tried, and unsuccessfully attempt to blame  mental illness.  Conviction affirmed, film at ten.

As I sit in my dining room, 21 plus years later, the terrible tragedy in Connecticut raises the hairs on the back of my neck.  Grief draws tears:  grief for the children whose lives ended with the deadly accurate aim of a ruthless murderer.  But grief also for the children huddled nearby under desks, in corners.  Layer upon layer of pain will unfold in their minds, drawn forth as they mature, bubbles rising to the surface, or foaming beneath the cool plane of their passive faces.  Time after time, they will ask themselves the question that lurks in the gloomy corners:  Why them?  Why not me?

Years after my brief encounter with a killer's rage, I stood in the bathroom at my home in Winslow, Arkansas.  The drug store kit had shown a solid "plus", foretelling the birth of my son.  Eyes met reflected eyes.  The chill of winter surrounded me; the future loomed, with its sleepless nights, its momentary flashes of regret, its joys, its triumphs, its fears.  As I stared into my own future, shining in the light of my reflected countenance, I felt the surge of survivor's guilt that I can never shake.  So much has happened to me, so many things that others could not bear.  A chaotic childhood.  A few lost years, drowned in single malt.  Some ravaged relationships, a few that left scars, some that left bruises that faded only in the corporal world.  Shot at, run down, left for dead. 

And yet, still living.  Where others bled and died, I rose, a crippled Phoenix, with tattered feathers, and flew on, sometimes knocked off course, but still soaring.  Why them?  Why not me?

The coffee pot sounds three bells, telling me it has shut off.  The crickets which sing in my inner ear raise their voices.  The rest of the house stands silent.  One glance tells me that the headline has not changed:  20 children still lay in the morgue, six adults to watch over them forever.  In an hour or so, a friend will pull into my driveway, and we will go sit over brunch, warm food in our bellies, steaming tea in a pot, chasing away the cares of the week with the same sort of ease that a lunatic ended the lives of twenty-six innocents.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saturday Musings: 08 December 2012

Good morning,

My body feels like a shirt pulled through the ringer of the old washer that stood in my mother's basement.  Those wrung-through shirts, pants and other laundry plopped into the waiting basket, lifeless and cold, coming to life only with the billowing wind that gently dried the wash hanging on the line in our backyard.  My coffee, crumpet and mandarin orange restore some semblance of life to my old bones.

Two hundred folks gathered in my professional suite last night for a Holiday Open House and Art Reception.  I say two hundred because two hundred names march in rows in the guest book, but I suspect a few souls snuck past without signing, so it could well have  been more.  I'm crowing:  the idea of having walls big enough to display fabulous art supplied by the VALA Gallery came from a conversation over coffee with Gallery founding artist Penny Thieme, my long-time friend and my son's god-aunt.  And that conversation, ultimately, flowed from twenty-five years of a friendship that stemmed from a thirty-year connection to my legal-assistant-slash-former-brother-in-law-slash-best-friend, Alan White.

I don't have a ton of long-time friends, but those whom I do have, enrich my life full-strength.

I started Friday with the nagging, chirping voices of NPR's Morning Edition at 5:00 a.m.  At 7:15, I parked my scrawny butt in a chair at You Say Tomato with a hobbit-style Second Breakfast, which I greedily gobbled while waiting for clients to arrive.  Arrive they did, and I had an opportunity to reiterate a few salient points before we headed to Juvenile Court for a hearing that I had tried to have scheduled on another day.  But Judge, my office Holiday Party is that day, I had whined, two months ago when she announced the selected setting.  What time is it starting, she snapped, and in response to being told 3:00 p.m., she promptly replied, I'm setting you at 9:00 and only giving you an hour, so you'll be done in time.  A metaphorical gavel pounded, and December 7th got even more crazy.

I'll say only that the hearing resulted in a favorable outcome, and I got to be the hero for a family that might some day regret my effectiveness.  I liken my lawyering in Juvenile Court to applying a swathe of plaster to the cracks in a concrete wall.  It holds until the next big rain.  Outside the courthouse, I scolded my client for the past transgressions that culminated in the demise of his first marriage, which inglorious ending prompted him to turn his back on three small children, leaving them in the constant care of his psychotic ex-wife.  Her failings brought them into the state's care, and now my client and his present wife strive to secure their release, home to a father who once abandoned them to the chaos of their mother's world. 

Every time I set foot in the halls of family justice, I say a prayer, sometimes audibly uttered, thanking the Powers That Be for limiting my inadequacies and the impact of my shortfall to tersely-toned visits to a teacher or two along the way.  My son matured into a decent soul despite my best efforts to derail him.  Thank God I never had to come here as a parent of a child in care, I told a friend once, and concurrence shone from her countenance.  Or as that child in care, she added.

I walked away from the chastened trio of my client, his wife, and mother, stepping into my car and journeying south where decorations waited to be hung.  I felt the age in the tightness of the muscles that barely hold my neck upright, and in the small of my back, where three disintegrated vertebrae maintain their feeble hold on integrity with the ironic assistance of a Tarlov cyst. I shrugged off fatigue; I drank cold water, and nibbled on a protein bar, casting my eyes from side to side, watching for stray buses and accelerating teens. 

A couple of hours later, two young ladies hired to bartend and serve arrived amidst the frenzy of preparations of my suite-mates and our receptionist.  These women, twenty-somethings, with radiant faces, came into my life on the heels of their mother's divorce.  I represented her and fought for custody, which we succeeded in maintaining despite the improbable testimony of the Guardian Ad Litem who argued that my client should not be considered a suitable custodian because as a stay-at-home mother, she had not made any effort to contribute to the support of her children.  She cited the first prong of the best interest test, which includes a mandate for the court to gauge "the willingness of parents to actively perform their functions as mother and father for the needs of the child".  She argued that failure to maintain employment signaled the reverse -- an unwillingness, an incapability.

The judge disagreed.

Years later, two of the three children whose custody I won for their mother still matriculate in  my circle, especially the middle child, Laura, who graced the receptionist desk at the Corley Law Firm for many years.  As I watched them last night, pouring drinks to two hundred of our close personal friends, circulating trays of delectable goodies, bagging trash -- I realized that my life's tapestry glistens with gossamer threads that distract one's eye from the tattered edges.

Late in the evening, I collapsed in a chair in the lobby near the settee from which a cellist had played heavenly music through the event.  A guest sat in the chair next to mine, and we watched as a stalwart soul carried dissembled easels out to the Gallery owner's vehicle.  My companion mentioned that she would soon remarry, having found her soul mate late in life after a long marriage had ended disastrously.  But I don't think I will change my name to his, she opined.  He doesn't care, and I just think I want to have my own last name, the name with which I started.  That's how people think of her, she said.  That's how she thinks of herself.

I told her that having been married three times, I had not changed my surname for anyone.  She expressed surprise, asking if "Corley" was "my name".  I laughed, as did the easel-carrier.  Ask my first husband if I ever changed my name, I told her, and gestured.  She only used my name once, the man announced, with mock outrage.  When she filed for divorce!  Exit laughing, my first-ex-husband, Chester White, the best carpenter in Kansas City.

I don't like enemies.  For a cantankerous old soul, I'm surprisingly willing to keep the faces of my past around me -- the good ones, at least.  The ones who welcome your son to sleep on their floor when he and a buddy travel cross-country, despite the fact that you haven't seen their hostess for fifteen years nor written for five.  The ones who sit for three hours over coffee, laughing, crying, touching your hand, even though you hadn't so much as exchanged a phone call in forty years.  The ones who arrive with stepladders, and hammers, and carpenter nails; the ones who humor you and scallop the Christmas lights under the window sill; the ones who give deep discounts on gorgeous flowers; the ones who know where all the bodies are buried, especially the bodies over whom they cast the first shovel of dirt.

A friend recently turned a cold face and a stiff back in my direction, as far as I am able to discern for no reason other than that I bested her on opposite sides of the aisle in a case that should have been easy to settle.  I miss her.  I miss her warm smile, her deep throaty laugh, her haughty self-confidence, and her quirky humor.  The yard of my life's fabric from which her ruby thread unraveled has weakened without her.  The loss of her underscores the beauty of what remains, and its fragility.

I hear the Car Guys from the kitchen and realize that I slept too late, and tarried over-long.  I have several more hurdles to jump before I can spend a quiet evening with my husband.  I haven't consumed enough coffee to shake the languorous feeling of my long sojourn on the pillow, and I'm not sure we've many beans left in the canister.  That's as good an excuse as any for throwing on jeans, and driving to my favorite coffee shop, One More Cup, where a Nutty Girl sandwich no doubt bears my name.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Saturday Musings, 01 December 2012

Good morning,

A maelstorm of messages flooded my inbox as I worked yesterday, seemingly triggered by a remark which I had made on this listserve, a place where I have felt that I could be reasonably honest with my expressions of thought.  I admit that some of the more vehement posts that I read trouble me still.  The original subject, I will summarize for anyone reading these musings who might not be on the listserve where they are first published, was an encounter that I had with a woman who acknowledged fabricating a vicious lie about her own son because her son is gay, (a word here which means "homosexual", not "happy"), and she harbors fear that her "gay" son will infect her young grandsons and "turn them like him".  The woman and her daughter, the outraged mother of the grandsons in question, found themselves in a tremendous quagmire of legal complications due to the false allegations made by the grandmother. 

They have not retained me.  I suspect they never will.  I met separately with the mother, and I even offered to represent her for a lower rate than my usual customarily low fees, but I do not think she can afford even that.  I've sent my nonengagement letter, I've paced the corridors of my suite castigating the ignorance of humanity in strident tones, and I dumped some of my frustration onto this listserve -- triggering the maelstorm, and drawing a few lurkers out of the woodwork to express their varied views on sexual orientation, its legal and religious implications, and issues stemming from those concepts.  At one point, the conversation here on this listserve degenerated so far down into troubled tones that I had to stop reading. 

I firmly believe in freedom of speech.  I don't recall who defined the First Amendment as a citizen's right to say any damn fool thing he wants, but that's my philosophy as well.  Am I not the daughter of a union organizer?  The sister of two brave souls who lobbied for the teachers' union, one of whom might well have been derailed in his career due to his staunch support of his fellow teachers?  Did my mother not picket the convent when a rabidly angry nun pulled me from the floor that I was mopping on  my hands and knees, and shook me vehemently, decrying the fouling of her chapel with the sister of hippies?  Was the family Maverick  not adorned with handmade bumper stickers which read, in my mother's careful print, "Vietnam...Laos...Cambodia...But I have four sons!"?

Freedom of speech should carry with it a mandate of responsibility, and to some extent, it does.  We must not cry "Fire!"' in a crowded theatre where none rages.  We have to be mindful of other limits that have been carefully crafted by our courts -- inciting violence, disturbing peace: the time, place and manner restrictions which have their origins in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927):

"[A]lthough the rights of free speech and assembly are fundamental, they are not in their nature absolute. Their exercise is subject to restriction, if the particular restriction proposed is required to protect the State from destruction or from serious injury, political, economic or moral….To justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced…[N]o danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression."

Having affirmed my kinship with Judge Brandeis, at least in these beliefs, I come, then, to the reason that my Musings this date have no warm-and-fuzzy memory, no heartwarming, tear-tugging, rosy recollection.  I find that sentiment and nostalgia have abandoned me.  I can usually depend upon my mind to lull itself into a Saturday stupor, eased into the comfort of reverie by the gentleness of the morning breeze, the cheerful glint of early sunlight, and the wandering of those portions of my mind which are not needed for the week's challenges and have been left to their own happy resources.  But this day, this Saturday morning, those extra brain cells had another chore.  While clients' work commanded some ten or twenty percent of the brain trust afforded me by whatever force created my genetic code, the rest of my thought-power has been cogitating over the competing viewpoints expressed on the subject of whether persons who have a same-gender orientation have committed sin, should be able to marry, violate general precepts of propriety, or however one would characterize the various threads on this listserve that shot from my original post with a vengeance.

I have interjected myself into the discussion on this listserve in the last forty-eight hours with uncharacteristic sparseness.  My intent in doing so arose from the desire to join in one or two salient points, and ignore the rest.  With various degrees of success, I strove to establish some basic beliefs:  I despise bigotry; I embrace diversity; I shudder at the thought that a divine entity could condemn anyone for anything other than intentional inflection of harm.  I have some friends on this list, and I believe there are people on this list who know me and dislike me.  That is certainly their prerogative.  In fact, I do not care.  But I do care about the suggestion that while "all [persons] are created equal (note the edit)", there are some persons who might just be a tad bit less equal than others.  The smug suggestion that God certainly loves people who are of a certain sexual orientation, despite that sexual orientation, sickens me.  The further proposition that there should be an intertwining of the condemnations that religions espouse with the law which governs our civilian business enrages me. 

And into the mix, someone threw a wrench that hit me squarely in the gut:  "The race card" -- a suggestion that "we whites" should heed an "urgent warning" that "we will soon be the minority".  I had to leave my desk and go into the bathroom and vomit.  Really.

There are a thousand people on this listserve, the listserve where I post these Musings and have happily done so for four years.  They come in all shapes, sizes, colors, both genders (maybe some that have themselves experienced each gender) and multiple sexual orientations.  Our members live in cities, and suburbia, and rural Missouri, or, even, heaven forbid, rural Missourah. The posts generated on this listserve land in inboxes thoughout the state, and in the Virgin Islands, and in other states, too, since some of the good members of the Missouri Bar have ventured elsewhere in this nation.  I am haunted by the hidden horror of members of the Small Firm Internet Group whom I don't even know, or whom I know but who belong to a category of persons that is unknown to me:  The SFIG listserve member who sits at his or her desk wrapped in brown skin, or the subtle tones of Vietnamese pigmentation, with a picture of his or her same-gender partner on the desk nearby.  I picture that attorney raising his or her fingers to hit "delete", feeling the nausea that beset me during this discussion, overwhelmed by the decades of the suppression of his or her basic nature that society demands.

In 1977, I got a job at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri as an assistant to Patricia Martin, their lobbyist.  Because of space limitations, I couldn't office on the same floor as my boss, but hung my cape on the back of a door in the Housing Unit, working at a little steel desk.  One of the housing lawyers, Nina Balsam, took pity on me, inviting me to lunch now and then, talking to me about her work.  Others in that unit let me into their social circles.  I recall that time with considerable nostalgia. I often imagine myself in that unit still, decades later:  my first taste of the law, long before I decided to embrace it as my vocation.

Let me be clear:  I have not seen Nina Balsam in thirty-two years.  I don't even know if she is still alive, or what she is doing. I don't know if she is, or was, gay or straight, married or single, partnered or alone.  I make no statements about her by recounting this incident.  I don't think she would be insulted if I did, but as I have no knowledge to form the basis of any pronouncement, any I would make would be based on pure supposition and hence irresponsible.

That said:

One day Nina came into the office with a dejected look on her face.  Someone inquired as to the reason for her foul mood.  I did something last night that I never thought I would do.  We waited for the pronouncement, expecting some wild event, or some profound decision.  I shaved my legs, she said, and slumped into her chair.

Later, she explained to me that she thought judges were looking askance at her because of her unshaven legs.  She didn't care if they didn't like her, she acknowledged.  But she cared if they ruled against her clients because they didn't like her.

I learned a valuable lesson from Nina that day, one of many that she and her colleagues taught me. Who we are, and how we are perceived, contributes to the response that others have to us.  This immutable fact haunts us.  Are we genetically driven to like certain people, because they are like us, because they conform to what we expect of others?  Are we socially conditioned to reach certain conclusions about people based upon the minute nuances of their personal comportment?

Is beauty really just skin-deep?

All of these principles -- the ones bandied about on this listserve in the past two days, and the ones gleaned from fifty-seven years of living -- swirl in my subconscious.  My dreams contained troubled imagery last night, symbols that I do not comprehend.  I have remained both troubled and intrigued by what I saw in the various posts, those by outraged Christians, the humorous ones, the thoughtful and intellectual examinations of these most weighty issues, even those containing what I still perceive as disgusting prejudice.

The First Amendment allows us to speak as we will, provided we honor what the law proscribes as speech that violates certain time, place and manner restrictions.  The law in turn must make those restrictions as sparse as possible, to serve the greater good but not drive it, to protect order but not demand it, to allow others to traverse society without itself defining what the society will be.  I would not have it any other way.

My quarrel is not with the freedom to speak.  My quarrel, then, must be elsewhere, and as I reach the end of my ability to muse this morning, I know at last where it lies.  It lies exactly where that grandmother found herself, in the inevitability of impact, the bell that has been rung, the insult that has been hurled, the tar that sticks to the surface of its victim.

I realize that the fundamental flaw in freedom of speech is that once spoken, one's words cannot be withdrawn.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

The Missouri Mugwump™

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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.