Saturday, September 27, 2014

27 September 2014

Good morning,

I've shamelessly tuned to Lawrence Public Radio for the day, to avoid listening to the fall membership drive on KCUR.  I already give; I'm a lifetime monthly donor.  I don't need the pitch, and it annoys me.  Lest I be tempted to complain, I've found a way around it without losing the enjoyment of the morning radio shows.

I'm tired today, but feeling a bit more satisfied than usual.  I got a chance to see the Kansas City Actors Theatre perform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead last evening, something to which I'd been looking forward for a couple of weeks.  My friend Brenda and I first dined at Eden Alley, a vegetarian restaurant that it turns out we both enjoy, and then on to Union Station and the play.  I had not seen a production of this work in so many years that I could not recall my last viewing.  It has not lost any appeal for me.  The deft acting of the members of KCAT did the absurd work justice.

My last thought before troubled sleep fell to the first time I saw professional theatre.  St. Louis, 1965 or 1966; I think it was Kiel Auditorium.  And as I drifted to sleep, I lost myself in that memory.

I'm nine, maybe ten.  I'm wearing a red plaid jumper and a white shirt with a Peter Pan collar.  My hair falls to the middle of my back in ringlets painstakingly formed by my mother while I sat on a wooden stool in the kitchen.  I had felt  a warm flush in my belly while I held still for her; my grandmother has given my mother two tickets to a play, and she has decided to take me.  

We take a bus downtown.  I stumble as we climb the steps; the driver looks down at me, a kind smile, a soft word.  "Take your time, Miss," he says.  His face looks worn.  I wonder if he has a little girl, someone who hears his patient voice every day.  I smile and slide into the seat behind him.  My mother settles next to me.  We've done this many times; the trips blur together.  

I hold her hand as we enter Kiel Auditorium.  The crowds frighten me.  I shrink against my mother's dress and cast a guarded eye at the men and women filing through the doors.  I see no other children.  But I don't feel out of place; I feel special. 

Our seats are high above the stage; it looks tiny but elegant, dark now, while the crowd settles.  I've been to plays but never in a room larger than my house, with strangers around me, way above the stage.  I saw my sister in "Carnival" at the high school.  She did props for "Bell, Book and Candle", and we all went because our neighbor's cat played the witch's animal.  But now I'm surrounded by women from whom wafts of perfume drift and men who smell of cigar smoke.  I settle into a velvet-covered seat and gaze down at the privileged people in the floor seats without envying them.  I wait.

The first strands of the opening song fill the auditorium.  I hang on every word sung by The Urchins:  "There is a beautiful land, where all your dreams come true. . ."  The lights rise to reveal the set:  A large, circular Game of Life, on which, for the next two hours, I will watch Anthony Newley as "Cocky" in this phenomenal touring production of "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd".  I savor every note.  I slide forward to the edge of the seat and stay there, holding the brass rail, following the players' movements as they play a game in which the rules always change.

By the time Mr. Newley tells us, "My first love song, this is my first love song," I have fallen in love with him, with theatre, with the magic of pretending on a scale that I had never known and would never understand.  His vibrant British voice reaches our seats and lifts us into his alternating joy and chagrin.  

I want to go down to the stage and comfort Mr. Newley when he pleads, in the last song of the first act:  "Who can I turn to, if nobody needs me?  My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me.  And maybe tomorrow, I'll find what I'm after.  I'll throw off my sorrow, beg steal or borrow my share of laughter.  With you, I could learn to.  With you on a new day.  But who can I turn to if you turn away?"   His words, his voice, burn themselves in my mind and I know, at that moment, that I will never forget the sight and sound of him.

We don't leave our seats during the intermission.  I didn't know that in the lobby, people would buy drinks and some small snack.  I didn't know that we had no money for such luxuries.  I thought we stayed in our seats so no one would take them.  I did not want to miss one moment; I stayed in my seat so that I would hear the first note of the first song of the second act and each word after the first word.  

I feel a rush of excitement when The Negro wins The Game of Life, standing at the center of the board and raising his grand voice, finding his oneness with the world around him.  I close my eyes as he sings "Birds, in the sky, you know how I feel, River running by, you know how I feel.  It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life, for me."  

I want to know how he feels. I want to stand with him.  But I am far away, high up, in the last row of the house, a small child in a throng of grown-ups.  My chest heaves.

Sir and Cocky lock themselves in  battle, Sir wanting to control Cocky and Cocky wanting only a chance, only to be loved, only to be heard and understood.  I take my mother's little opera glasses to my eyes and see Anthony Newley's face as though I had been transported down to the first row.  His song washes over me as he and Sir realize that they depend upon each other:  "This, my friend, is only the beginning, such a sweet beginning too.  Now at last, I see a chance of winning, see a chance of breaking through.  Come on, my friend, let's send the whole world spinning:  Change, is what I recommend.  And so, my friend, let's see the sweet beginning through to the bitter end.  Through to the bitter end."  As the last note echoes through the hall, I feel my hands gripping the brass rail in front of me and realize that I have stopped breathing.

I don't see the passing streets as we make our way back to North County, back to our home in Jennings, back to my small bed, in a shared bedroom, in a house of many children, too little food, and too few dreams.  The strains of the closing refrain of "A Beautiful Land" follow me:  "And if you travel the world, from China to Peru, there's no beautiful land on the charts.  And you're full of the lucky gift, to discover it for yourself, for the beautiful land is in your heart.  Your heart.  Your heart."

I haven't heard the news, nor the first stories on NPR's Morning Edition.  My coffee has grown cold.  The dog has abandoned her quest to draw me to the kitchen and her food.  My neck creaks from bending  to see the laptop.  My wrists strain at the wrong angle for typing.  I have not noticed any of this.  I glance over the words I have written.  I squint a bit, partly because I have discarded my inadequate glasses in favor of leaning my face close to the screen, and partly because I am trying to picture that night, nearly forty years ago.  I ask myself, Was I really the only child who went with my mother?  Did Frank and Steve go, too?  Did we really take the bus, or was that a different trip, to Grandma's house?  I think I remember it as it happened; I've typed the words of the songs from memory; I feel more sure of that, then my recollection of the color of my dress or the feel of the opera glasses against my face.

The exact details do not matter.  What matters is this, and only this:  On that night, a little girl sat in a very big theatre, and found a way to let the cares of her troubled world fall away.  The world of acted make-believe would be a comfort for that girl many times over; and later in life, when the solace of escape did not seem so critical, the memory of that first experience would nonetheless linger.  Only a note would be necessary -- one note, one bar, of one song -- to bring that girl back to the seat high above The Game of Life, where Anthony Newley sang to her:  My first love song:  this is my first love song.  But it takes a poet to make a rhyme.  I'm not clever, I could never ever sing the praises worthy of you.  Each endeavor I may make to sing your praises may not sound as it should do.  But I love  you.  Please believe I love you, and I love the way poets do, to bring my love song, and sing my love song to you."

And The Girl answers:  My first love song:  this is my first love song.  No one's ever needed my love before.  You're like I am.  All alone like I am and in need of someone to care. . . If you love me, as you say you love me, I would be so happy to see you bring your love song, and sing your love song to me."

Mugwumpishly  tendered,

Corinne Corley

To hear a lovely rendition of "My First Love Song", go here:  

My First Love Song

Saturday, September 20, 2014

20 September 2014

Good morning

The day struggles to assert itself, just as I do.  Grey clings to the air; ache grips my muscles.  I stumble around the house, listening to Morning Edition and shaking my head, testing the cobwebs, challenging their stake to my brain.  I fall into a chair and raise the mug to my mouth, thinking, Coffee, coffee, surely all I need is coffee.  It's Saturday but it might as well be the day before Armageddon.  I slug the coffee down, heedless of my burned mouth.  I wait for it to do its work.

I can't make out what the lady on the radio tells me about the weather.  The radio sits just around the corner and I know the volume knob sits on too loud for most people, but the ringing in my ears obscures the sound which it emits.  More coffee, more coffee, you just need more coffee.  My mug says, "Northwestern University" on both sides.  It completes my collegiate collection:  Harvard, a DePauw "First Farm Table" cup swiped from my son, and now Northwestern.  I smile.  Ah, a smile.  Perhaps I will live!

I like awakening early but today, I would just as soon have slept past even the six-forty-five slot at which I finally shook myself to consciousness.  I'm getting old.  But I'm not complaining, as my friends know; I abandoned complaining at the first of this year, a choice that I've struggled to honor and often deeply regret.  Oh, dang.  That qualifies as a slip!  I smile again.  It's getting to be a habit.

Some Saturdays, my mind casts back to days that have already fallen from the calendar to clutter around my feet.  I step among the pages.  On their surfaces, notes in varied handwriting and different inks remind me that I made plans and held onto scraps of recollection.  Lunch, 12:00, one page might say.  I lift it from the ground and gaze at its month and year, trying to recall with whom I dined and where.  I let  the yellowed paper fall from my hand and watch it flutter. The fullness of time gathers around my feet, the days I have lived, the days I have lost, the days I have forgotten.  I drink more coffee.  I smile a third time; someone sings on the radio, with a soft round voice.

I never sit in silence.  The chronic tinnitus which has plagued me since childhood grows more insistent, more varied, more like a frenetic, wild symphony each day.  But other sounds crowd my mind and fill my ears:  Voices, laughter, sobs, the crash of a car and the blast of a shotgun.  Funeral music and rock 'n roll.  Bagpipes and harmonicas.   Harsh tongue-lashings and weak entreaties.  Lovers' whispers and children's cries.  I shake my head, the cobwebs still clinging and the ghosts crowding, clamoring, crying, Look at me, look at me, look at me.

I've squandered many days.  A few, I've spent wisely.  I can't tell how many pages remain in the calendar hanging on my wall; maybe twenty, maybe two-hundred, maybe a thousand.  A pen hangs on a string from the same hook, upside down, ready to mark the pages with events that I want to be sure to remember -- ahead, so I'll be on time; afterwards, so I won't forget.  I take another sip of coffee and feel a fourth smile threatening to dawn across my tired face.  I glance out the back door and see that the sun's bold rays have defeated the grey.  I check the calendar, Coffee, Pat, 10:30.

It's going to be a keeping day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Saturday Musings, 13 September 2014

Good morning,

After visiting my favorite curmudgeon last evening, I sped northwards, on Quivera Road, deep in Johnson County, Kansas, with rudimentary directions and a strong sense of determination.  I had promised Penny that I would attend the showing of her Summer Love photographs, taken at Greene's Acre, an organic farm in Merriam owned by her friend Steve Greene.  Despite the threat of approaching dusk when my weak eyes lose their shy grip on functionality, I vowed to get there. I pulled into the parking lot of Jill Dutton's art space nervous, edgy, and certain that I would have to sleep on the floor.  I wedged my car between the driveway and a dumpster, nursed the cagey ignition into lock position, and slid from behind the wheel.  My feet hit the gravel just as the door to the old stone house burst open and Penny herself emerged, saying goodbye to one friend as I approached the entry way.  She folded me in an embrace that validated my decision to brave the potential of death by night-blind driving.

Three hours later, photos viewed, friends met, and caravan back to the house with one friend driving my vehicle and another following completed, I ascended to my cabin bedroom, laptop in one hand, bowl of grapes in the other.  As the cold of the room with its open windows hit me, I thought about all the cold rooms I have ever entered and the present gave way to the musty memories which rose to claim me.

Early January, 1988.  Jasper, Arkansas.  I'm six months into my first marriage, alone in Newton County trying to start a law practice while  my husband tours with a theatre company as their technical director.

The pipes in our rental house have already frozen, a phenomenon with which I've not previously dealt  in 31 years of living.  I've already made a frantic call to my father, and, at his instruction, gone to the local feed store and purchased a bale of hay to put around the above-ground pipes.  A farmer in a battered truck has already hauled the hay to the house and opened it for me, silent, grim, eyeing me with an unspoken question gleaming in his glance.  Who moves their city wife to the country and leaves her on her own?  It is a fair question but there is a fair answer:  We needed the money that Chet's job promised.

Now I've discovered the propane tank either doesn't function or has no fuel.  I don't know which, and it's Sunday; the company which we're told can fill it won't be open until the next day.  I had no idea it would be so cold in Arkansas, in the mountains but several hours south of my home state.  I had thought of Arkansas as a hot land, a different segment of the hemisphere, one with nothing in common with its northern neighbors.  But here, in Jasper, I find myself shivering in the living room as I struggle to get all of our belongings unpacked and put away.  My heart feels grim.

I abandon my task and drive, up the mountains to Murray Valley, with the low grey depths of the countryside  on my right as I climb the gentle rise to the mountains' higher points.  The land lies  still.  Most of its native inhabitants are down in the city at church.  I get to the Murray Valley Community Center in time for the nonsectarian Sunday Service.  My husband's friends, old hippies most of them, greet  me with broad smiles as Jeanne Ashworth begins to play and sing.  Her wide friendly face turned toward me, she lets her spirit wrap around her words as she praises the divine entity in whom I did not quite believe in those days when I still groped to find some faith.

After the song, someone reads some passage, not from the Bible but from something I did not recognize.  I mostly daydream, warm now in a room with heat, my muscles gradually loosening as the cold releases its grip.  Someone else speaks a few words about how we should manage our lives, our inner lives, our spiritual existence.  My mind drifts.  Then we sing another song which I do not know.  After the service, we drink coffee, and Mary Ann Ashworth invites me to Sunday supper.  This is the whole reason that I have driven to that place, sat through the service, strained to keep my disinterest from showing on my face:  To get invited to some one's house for Sunday supper.

Her home holds all the things you'd want to see in a dwelling built into the side of a stretch of rough untamed land:  Jars of preserves, flowered curtains, a mudroom with flannel quilted jackets.  The kitchen smells like every country kitchen everywhere, without perhaps the heavy odor of too much fried food.  It smells of freshly cut herbs, and cinnamon, and the smokey fragrance of well-water.  Mary Ann's younger children still live at home but they've gone off somewhere, and just she and I sit in the kitchen for a cup of tea while the chicken simmers in the skillet and the pie bakes in the oven.

Her face shines as she asks how I'm adjusting to this life.  Her eyes meet mine and they seemed filled with love though I cannot imagine why.  I've known her not quite a year, since she made the food for our March wedding, and for most of that time, I've seen her only  at church during our weekends staying at her ex-husband's house across Thomas Creek where Mary Ann and her children had once lived, before the divorce that they probably never thought could happen.  But Mary Ann walks the path of kindness.   I take the last few steps to dwell in her glow, if only for that hour.

Now she waits for me to answer her question.    I tell her about the frozen pipes, the empty tank, the boxes in the living room and the lonely midnight hours.

Oh honey, she says.  Stay here tonight, it's okay.  I've got plenty of room and it's warm here.  I pretend to resist the invitation but we both know that I will stay.  She gets up to fill our plates straight from the pots and pans, and we sit at her table, which she has covered with a flowered table-cloth.  We eat baked chicken, green beans that came from her garden  last summer, and potatoes from an organic farm across the valley.  Afterward, we have strong coffee and her freshly-baked pie, and I forget about the empty rental house down in town.  For a day, a night, and a morning before I leave to meet the propane company, Newton County feels like home.

Now it's Saturday in Kansas City half a lifetime later, and my house holds the chill which tells me that winter approaches.  I wear a woolen, hand-knit sweater over my pajamas and drink hot coffee from a pink checkered cup given to me by my friend Pat.  I had a rough night.  I don't know if the cold plagued my legs, or if I suffered from a day wearing worn-out shoes, but I found myself pacing, writhing, and finally groping for the midnight anti-spasmodic that I hoped would calm my raging nerves.  I stilled my anxiety with deep breathing, letting  my mind fill with memories of Mary Ann's kitchen, the fragrance of  cinnamon and basil, and Mary Ann's calm smile.  I could see her standing with her wide bosom covered with a gingham apron, handing me an extra blanket, a stack of fresh towels and a new bar of home-milled lavender soap.  I could hear her soft voice telling me, as I drifted back to sleep, that everything would be all right in the morning.

And so it was.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Saturday Musings, 06 September 2014

Good  morning,

Another anniversary of my birth has come and gone.  Aching muscles testify that I enjoyed the evening's events but tasked myself over-much.  My professional suite's quarterly art reception coincided with my birthday, so I stood all evening in my customary place by the door, serving as guest book attendant and hostess, standing, smiling, greeting, marveling at the fifty or sixty folks who braved the driving rain to come see Heather Roman's extraordinary fabric scrolls and make a donation for SAFEHOME and Rosebrooks.  Each entity got $300 from the donation bucket, pushing them an inch closer in their battle against domestic violence.

The presence of the volunteers with their literature also cast a light into the dark mists of an ugly reality. Several people came to me and confided that they had, on some occasion in their past, needed the services of a shelter.  Among them, even before last night's event:  the manager at the store where I purchased some of the supplies.  She asked me what I was doing and when I told her, she said, quietly, simply, that she had been a client of Rosebrooks in the past - and then gave me a 10% discount.  She thanked me for helping an organization that had once helped her, and I left that store humbled by the catch in her voice and the lingering sheen of tears in her eyes.

As the reception drew to a close, I stood in my office and thought about people whom I have known in my practice who suffered abuse at the hands of a spouse or parent.  I understand their burdens; I feel what they feel; I taste what they taste.  I rarely speak of the grimmer moments of my childhood except by oblique reference or in reflecting on the healing path I strive to walk.  My silence on specifics honors both dead and living.  The dead cannot defend themselves; the living should not have to address anything which they prefer not to confront.  And so I leave the details of what my family suffered to the box in which I store them, and take them out one rock at a time, examining each memory when it rattles and demands to be touched or when something reminds me and I finger the wounds, massaging them with healing ointment, smoothing the ragged edges.  I admit that I have done more healing in the last year than in the previous fifty years.  I feel forgiveness warming me.  I wonder what my life would have been like if I had found this peace a long time ago.

On the wall in my newly painted hallway hangs a hand-drawn depiction of the expressions on Japanese marks.  A former client gave me this work after I completed her divorce.  Born in Japan, and here in America first on a student visa, this woman had married an America and triggered the start of a half-dozen years of hell.  Working with her immigration lawyer, I secured a judgment which enabled her to complete her permanent residency despite the divorce, based upon the domestic violence which she suffered.  Without specific findings about her husband's abuse of her, she would have been ousted from this country with the application still pending, no longer the spouse of a citizen, no longer eligible to attain the status.

My client also gave me a puzzle box, and years later, sent another one to me in the mail.  On a shelf in my office stands a Mrs. Potts teapot from Tokyo Disney World, with its corresponding Chips cup, also gifts from her.  The last time I saw her, she came to my home for Thanksgiving dinner, the year of her divorce and just before she journeyed home to Japan to see her family, secure in the knowledge that she could legally return to this country when she chose to do so.  When we went around the table doing our "thankful-fors", this beautiful young woman pointed to me, without speaking.  I have never forgotten her.  I never could.

Last night, someone asked me what I would do in the last year of my fifties if I could have my wish.  I considered "bring about world peace", but knew she asked her question with seriousness and wanted me to respond the same.  I voiced a couple of sentimental yearnings, but saw her arched eyebrow and fell silent. "I want to know what you want to be doing," she gently urged.  I reflected.  "I'd like to write," I told her.  "And I'd like to create something bigger than just my law firm, something that would do some lasting good so I could know that I made a difference, that I created something that would help a lot of people who need an advocate."  She nodded, as though to say, I expect no less of you, my friend.

On the radio, a group of children sing Edelweiss.  This song brings my grandmother to mind.  She was born in Austria and immigrated to America as a child.  A strong woman, assertive, independent, she had a gentle side.  I remember her visiting our home once when my mother was hospitalized.  I don't know why; perhaps my brother Stephen's birth, perhaps some other, terrible event.  I could not have been older than five or six.  I came upon Nana standing in my mother's room, over the bed she had just made.  She held something in her hands -- a book, I think; perhaps my mother's missal.  She did not see me.  Tears fell from her unblinking eyes, trailed down her cheek, fell to her blouse.  I made no sound.  Nana leaned down, set the book on the bedside table, and ran one hand across the pillow case to smooth it.  I've never seen such tenderness bestowed on an empty bed.  I can only imagine what she thought, at that moment, about the woman --- her oldest child -- who normally slept there.

The morning labors on while I linger over coffee.  I need to tear myself away from my thoughts, and do something constructive.  But with the sweetness of the morning air drifting into the house from the backdoor, I prefer to sit, thinking, wondering about the ways in which we treat one another; wondering whether the good outweighs the bad, whether the love conquers the fury of anger.  I think about my client, far away, in Japan, and hope that happiness has found her.

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.