25 March 2017

Good morning,

Hours after the sun climbed above the eastern horizon, I wakened with a slight ache in the small of my back and thought, At which hostel am I?  But then I realized that my bi-annual pilgrimage to NorCAL had ended.  I opened my eyes to the sight of the 95-year-old knotty-pine-clad cathedral ceiling of the upstairs bedroom in my Brookside airplane bungalow.  Home.

I heard the old dog rustling around on the first floor.  She doesn’t make that tapping sound because Catherine, a better dog-sitter than I am a dog-owner, took her for a manicure.  Or a puppy-cure.  I grabbed my cell phone, which I’ve promised the two or three most worried of my loved ones will be my constant companion.  As I passed the upstairs alarm panel, I punched the code and heard the lady’s voice say, System disarmed.  Ready to arm.  A comfort, unlike the GPS lady who delights in driving me mad by depriving me of the chance to hate her when she gets me lost in the most beautiful places.  How can you hate someone who takes you to see breathtaking views that you didn’t know existed?

With the dog outside walking the perimeter checking for scents that indicate breaches of her territory, I started the kettle for boiling water and dumped some of the leftover ground coffee into the Bodum’s filter.  I bought the ground coffee for the trip to California.  With the  dainty single-serve French press, it served me well.  But at the last hostel, I had found myself drawn to the coffee bar overlooking the Bay.  I plunked down a couple of bucks morning and night for a hot drink to nurse beside the electric outlet for my laptop.  I sat in a red leather chair with a carved back, the only remnant of the hostel’s antique past in the modern Cafe at the end of the long tiled hallway.

On  my first night at HI Fisherman’s Wharf, I watched a Jenga game in the Cafe and then walked through the lounge, eyeing the travelers hunched over computers and cell phones.  When the power went out in the park, including the old hostel building, I slid my little black flashlight from its pocket in my computer bag and padded around the place introducing  myself to the other transients.  I found a little anteroom next door to my own sleeping quarters.  I took out my tablet, opening On Tyranny to finish its twenty warnings for 2017 gleaned from mistakes of the twentieth century.

On my last day in California, a man from Argentina by way of Austin and Los Angeles asked me what I hoped to gain by my travels.  We talked of my three failed marriages and his; my son and his; my medical issues and his.  After an hour or so, we felt like old friends trying to cram six decades of stories into the hour before I had to return the rental car.  He helped me clean out the trunk and laughed when his predictions of impending failure at sorting the jumbled clothes turned out wrong.  I’ve got mad packing skills, I said, with a hint of false modesty.

Now I watch the rain drip from the eaves of my house and wonder if my past has been so thoroughly documented that only the bones remain.  I’ve been writing these Musings since 2008 and have told all the charming stories.  The frightful ones wouldn’t make for lovely reading, though they’d probably explain a lot to anyone who cares to understand.  I think about the World War I poetry which started this crazy public babbling; on the list-serve that now exists only in archives and in the hearts of those who once communed there.

When my sister Ann turned sixty, she looked into her mirror with self-accepting eyes.  Then she took herself in hand and changed her life.  I wanted to follow suit.  I wanted to go into the last third of my life with intention.  I reckoned without the bludgeoning impact of events nearly out of my control.

Lately I have found myself re-examining the effect of those blows.

In my office, on a shelf, is a round rock about eight inches in diameter which a friend gave me in 1990.  He claimed that he swam ashore in Mexico while sailing off the coast and hauled the rock back to his boat.  He called it a geode.  I’ve never been tempted to crack it open to see.   But somebody recently asked me if I planned to do so.  She said it might be worth a lot of money.  She guessed that the inside would be stunning.  I smiled at her and said,  Now listen here, Missy, you leave my rock alone.

We had a good laugh.  After she’d left I went to my office to make sure that she hadn’t made good on her threats to crack the thing.  I held it in my hands, wondering if she had been right.  Then I gently rested the rock back where I keep it, on a shelf, beside my  other trinkets, its beauty still hidden and uncertain.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

HI Point Reyes hostel, Point Reyes Station CA

18 March 2017

Good morning,

It is 10:14 Pacific time, on a day tinged with grey and the sharp bite of a sea reminding us that she controls our existence here.  Yet the morning required only a jacket and a scarf around my neck.  I wore my blue hat but only because the wind would otherwise have made more of a mess of my curls than my careless attitude already has done.

I walked a short way down the road north of the hostel, thinking to sit on one of the benches overlooking the ocean.  I carried with me the Georges Simenon book which I purchased in Menlo Park yesterday and read  halfway through before sleeping.  A trio of photographers stood amidst the ice plants on the ocean side of the road with their long lenses pointed westward.  They talked quietly and occasionally gestured outward as though disagreeing about the timing of shots.  I could see the suggestion of whales in the distance.

At the breakfast table, a five-year-old German girl named Ada told me in the flawless English of her American father that all of the teachers at her school in California are ladies except one.  Her older brother shook his head slightly, as though wanting to set the record straight without upsetting anyone.  My math teacher is a man, he disclosed.  I told him that one of my brothers is a math teacher.  I asked him if he thought perhaps all math teachers were men.  I recognized that little head shake.  He relegated me to the same group as his sister, wrong but to be protected from our mistakes.

In fact, he told me that to be a big brother, he had to be careful.  You can’t use all of your strength, he explained. The other children are smaller.  I praised him.  His sister carefully rolled her pancake into a cylinder and munched it, watching me, not at all sure why I was allowed to sit at their table.

On  my walk, I encountered a slight incline which I admit compelled me to regret leaving my walking stick in the rental car.  I started down the hill, which might have been a total drop of two feet over three times that in distance.  I inched my way, remembering my Stanford neurologist explaining to his Fellow why they wanted to decrease what he gently called “the dropping of her foot”.  He demonstrated a fall, pitching forward.  Then he talked about the narrowness of my stance, while I shifted my weight, trying to look alert, endeavoring not to drool or say anything embarrassing.  I don’t understand why it’s necessary to speak of patients in the third person.  It’s a little rude.  But I fly all the way here because the skill of the doctors whom I see is nearly beyond compare.  I suppose I can tolerate a little arrogance.

I watched the ocean for a while after I finally got to the bench.  I could see a fisherman on a far point, and a few more photographers.  The beauty of the place tempts even people such as myself who carry our phones on the offchance that we’ll frame a photo which will sustain us when we get back home to our dreary, landlocked lives.

When I had finished the book, I reversed my path and discovered that I could not force myself to retrace my steps all the way to the road.  I tried, and for my troubles, I landed on my bottom in the mass of ice plants.  I said, to no one, to the black birds, A fine mess you’ve gotten us into now, and the black birds rewarded me by taking flight to another spot in the path where they could search for grubs without being disturbed.  I regarded the sky above me, feeling a bit like someone’s old aunt in my hat with its jaunty flower and my red jacket buttoned clear up to my neck.

Eventually I pulled myself back to my feet but the book remained on the ground, with Mssr. Simenon’s portrait gazing at me expectantly.  Finally a man came along and steadied me as I scooted over the last little hump.  Where is your car, he said, and I felt oddly comforted by the cadence of his accent.  Another German, I thought.  I thanked him.  I gestured toward the buildings clustered at the base of the lighthouse.  Ah, you’re a guest here, he said.  I nodded.  Then he got into a red Corvette parked at the side of the road and took off with the rapidity of the young.  I walked on to the hostel, with its warm kitchen, the pleasant chattering of the children staying in the Seal house, and whatever I would find to occupy the rest of my day.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

11 March 2017

Good morning,

It’s five past the witching hour, but the dog and I awakened so early that the birds still slept in their tender nests of yesterday’s leaves and tiny twigs.  I heard the tap of the dog’s nails on the hardwood in the hallway and thought, Oh it’s Saturday, the Gas Company arrives at nine.  I stifled a grumble and pushed back the heavy wad of covers with which I surround myself like the cocoon of a larvae praying that she’s a Monarch.

For some reason, I have placed the laptop on a corner of the dining room table rather than my beautiful secretary.  To my left, a line of items staged for packing reminds me that I have only seventy-two hours before I have to be ready to fly.  California here I come.  Not the place from which I started but the place to which I’m drawn.

Lists play in my mind, Call Blue Cross, print out insurance card, wash some leggings, check the weather in Santa Rosa, press good black pants, order refills of the dog’s medicine for the house-sitter.  I’ve got a stack of one-dollar bills for all those eager hands who will push me down concourses in rickety wheelchairs.  I can walk in the Kansas City Airport but if I set that precedent, help will only reluctantly step forward.  I’ve learned, now, in my clever middle-age, that I do better if I start the trip without  having to make a dash for the gate.

Find and pack collapsible walking stick.  Add that to the list.

I like to travel but didn’t used to enjoy trips by myself.  In the last two years, I’ve grown resigned to my solitary journeys.  Phone charger; tablet; that portable thing Katrina gave me for when I don’t have access to power.  USB cable.  The list grows.

I watched a documentary on minimalism and thought about trying to take my small suitcase for this ten-day trip.  After all, I aspire to live in a 300-square foot tiny house.  I had a conversation with my mother once about belongings.  She had plenty:  mismatched china cups; wooden spindles that probably once stood above exploited immigrants in the garment district of New York; old pie tins from her grandmother’s kitchen.  I’ve got a lot of her things in my house.  I walk around this place wondering if my son will want them if I downsize.  He never knew his grandmother, which I consider a damn shame.

Make sure Jay’s pocket angel is in my handbag.  The little pocket angel from the bedside table of my favorite curmudgeon travels with me every place my lily-white spastic feet take me.

I lift the “I Love A Mystery” cup to my lips, and briefly lament that the bookstores which I once frequented on Saturdays have all closed.  I asked my friends on Facebook to recommend a book for my journey.  I got 48 suggestions, most of which I can purchase for less than fifteen bucks on Amazon and download to my Kindle app.  I swore that I would never abandon the feel of a hardback and crisply cut pages for the virtual reading experience.  A bout with blurred eyes which turned into a couple of years of madness catapulted me into modernity.  Even now with a wildly different and complex prescription which allows me to drive at night again, I still prefer reading on my tablet.  I take “real books” to sit above the ocean, but small volumes, which I can hold in my lap and abandon while I lose myself in the sunset.

Stash some poetry in the Barcelona bag.   I scrawl the addendum in my mental notebook and think about the blue-and-white bag which Sharon Lee brought back from an AIDS conference in 2003 and gave me.  Patrick and I stuffed that bag with our clothes for many weekend trips.  It converts from a shoulder bag to a backpack.  It holds as much as the carpet bag from which Mary Poppins drew her camp cot, the parrot umbrella, and the thermometer which gauged the temperaments of the Banks children and judged Mary herself to be “practically perfect in every way”.

I bought two new volumes of poetry at the last Art @ Suite 100 event, one from Timothy Pettet and one from David Arnold Hughes.  These will sustain me as the plane rises into the air, when the last lurch of the wheels parting from the runway startles me and I think, what the hell am I doing?  I can write a myriad of lists but none of them will tell me where I am going and what I will find when that impossibly graceful human-crafted bird touches down near the sea.

The sun has risen over Brookside.  The dog’s back asleep, under the table.  Occasionally she sighs.  I get that.  I understand.  For a brief second, I’m tempted to scramble back under the covers, burrowing, hiding, refusing to answer the door when the MGE contractor knocks at nine.  But the alarm keeps ringing, and the morning wind relentlessly whips the flags back and forth outside my window.  It’s time for breakfast.  I set my coffee cup on the table, and rise, to go into the kitchen and start my day for real this time.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley




04 March 2017

Good morning,

Standing on one’s feet for four hours should be exhausting.  At the end of the Art @ Suite 100 opening last night, the fatigue lurked in one corner of my mind waiting to spring.  But Genevieve Casey walked me from the parking space we found a block from McCoy’s to the restaurant where one of the showing artists and her family waited to dine with us.  I could tell  my body had reached the limit of endurance.  The strength of Genevieve’s arm and the lingering glow from a successful event kept me walking, one foot in front of the other, all the way to where Lori Hooten Roller and her amazing daughter Kris Roller stood with outstretched arms.

But now my body chides me for forcing it to keep going, from 4:30 a.m. when the first alarm rang yesterday to nearly midnight when I finally stopped moving.

When I came downstairs this morning, I stood in the hallway looking at a piece of art done by my son half his life-time ago, in seventh or eighth grade.  The memory of my first sight of it overtook me.

The phone rang, the twentieth century kind, blaring from the table in the living room.  A voice said, “Mrs. Corley, I’m having trouble with your son.”  I collapsed into a chair.  The early teen years had bludgeoned Patrick, compounded by health issues that defied explanation despite countless tests and the combined wisdom of his local doctors.  Difficult times for us.  What now, what now? 

The woman identified herself as the art teacher.  Art?  Thanks to his aunt Penny Thieme, my son truly loved art.  I could not fathom how he would be difficult in art class.  But I listened.  “He won’t follow directions,” the teacher continued.  “He won’t do what I tell him.”  

At first, I assumed that I understood her complaint.  Patrick’s dark defiance had plagued me as well.  Though my philosophy of parenting encouraged free-thinking, Patrick crossed even my boundaries during that time.  Then the art teacher said that my son refused to fulfill the assignments.  

She had caught my attention.  “What do you mean,” I asked.

She coughed and harrumphed.  I waited.  Then she said, “He keeps drawing small things.”

Small things?  “What do you mean,” I repeated.  “And why is that a problem?”  I heard a ponderous sigh.  “I give him a whole piece of paper and he uses only a small corner of it, or draws a tiny scene right in the middle.  It’s wasteful.”

Even now, thirteen years later, the echo of my hysteria lingers in the living room where I sit to write.  “That’s the problem you have with my son?  You want him to fill the page?  You don’t like the size of the paintings  he makes in your class?”  Derision bubbled from my belly.  “Good God, ma’am, you are a teacher, not a drill sergeant.  An art teacher, not a supply clerk.  Art should have no limits, least of all those imposed by narrow-minded people.”  I slammed the phone onto its cradle.  The satisfying sound of that petulant act reverberated throughout the house.

I thought about my last argument with Patrick, about the dark moods which had driven a wedge between us.  I looked around the house at the detritus of the normal life which I had tried to construct for my fatherless son.  The laughter died on my lips.  My face sagged.

I did talk to Patrick.  I told him that the art teacher had a thing for not wasting paper, and what would he think about drawing bigger pictures.  He stared at me for an agonizing moment before responding.  “I know all about it,” he told me.  “She says my pictures don’t fulfill the assignments because I’m supposed to use the whole paper.  But aunt Penny says that art is personal, and I should draw what I want to draw.”

What could I say?  My worries in that era far surpassed the real estate utilized by an eighth grader in art class.  My son’s mysterious health problems defied diagnosis.   My own unexplained breathing issues sent me to the hospital once or twice a month.   My husband had taken yet another job out of town, leaving me to cope on my own with bills, my boy, and the sad state of my unattended house.  

I told my son that I thought he should try at least to get along with the teacher, and make sure that she had no room to criticize him other than his proclivity for tiny pictures.  He gave me that long reflective look which I had come to know so well.  He told me that he would try.  I left it at that.

A few days later, the teacher called me at work to tell me that she was worried about Patrick.  I asked if her concern involved wasting paper.  She fell silent and then snapped, “Well, see for yourself when he brings home what he did in class today.  I think he is very disturbed and I think you are neglecting him.”  She terminated the call.  I sat with the receiver in my hand listening to silence.

That night, my son brought his latest work to me, carefully rolled and secured with two paper clips, one at either end.  I stifled my trepidation as the piece unfurled.  I studied the piece without saying anything for a few minutes.  Finally, I met my son’s eyes.  We had no need for words, but I said the first thing that came to the surface on a jumble of competing responses.  “Well, Buddy,” I began.  “I see you learned to use the entire page.  Well done.”

And then laughter erupted.  Suddenly, the haunting fears gave way to a flash of understanding that maybe — just maybe — everything eventually would be all right.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Untitled, pastels on paper, Patrick Corley, c. 2004