06 May 2017

Good morning,

My schizophrenic tendencies overwhelmed me today.  I found myself sitting over Twitter trying to recover from the shock of reading analytics about the American Health Care Act and the impact it would have on millions of Americans.  As my coffee cooled, I realized that I couldn’t complain about Congressional callousness (See myyearwithoutcomplaining.combut any decent human being would rise and do so.  I started cogitating about how I can write about the potential devastation which could result from the legislation for my political blog (See myeyesarewatchingyou.comand suddenly lurched from chair thinking, Oh my gosh!  The Musings!

It’s Saturday morning.  These are the Musings of a Missouri Mugwump, delayed a few hours due to the nauseating effects of reading the news.

So:  It’s May.  The merriest month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother.  I’ve imagined her skipping across her front yard in one of her wrap-around skirts.  I have a photo of her doing just that.  A friend printed it decades ago in a photo lab where she worked at the time.  It’s in sepia tone and but for the twentieth century Midwestern vibe, it has a certain timelessness that could put it anywhere, any year.

Somebody’s mother; anybody’s mother.

My mother always wore a slightly puzzled expression.  Her lips with their faded Revlon lipstick could smile beneath eyes that questioned whether another step forward could land her on hazardous footing.  My most vivid memories of her involve hospital rooms:  My grandmother lying motionless; my father with his hospital gown twisted and sweaty; me, trussed in a harness protecting my shattered leg; and finally my mother herself, telling me not to scold the nurses.  But mom —- She shook her head.

Even cancer is no excuse for rudeness, Mary, she said, with a quiet grace that I have never captured.

Even urine leaking from the site of your catheter, Mama?  Even that.

Even a botched surgery that delayed your radiation and will doubtless hasten your death?  That too.

Even a twenty-one year old girl in starched whites suggesting that my mother doesn’t talk to her husband the way she should?

Especially that, my dear; she has no idea what Daddy and I have experienced.  She sees only that he’s my husband and she thinks I should defer to him.  Let it be.

Believe me when I say that these conversations occurred between my mother and myself in the mad year between diagnosis and dying.

It has been 32 years since my mother died, from which you can deduce that I was just shy of 30 at her funeral.  As Mother’s Day draws closer, I look for her in the delicate irises blooming in my yard.  I see her face in the mirror; I grow more like her every day.  I would skip down the driveway if I could, but I celebrated her by spending three hours yesterday assisting Trish and Mary Beth as they restored my yard to something like respectability.  My mother would so love the hostas.  She would approve of the cedar mulch with which we surrounded them.  She would have been on her knees weeding alongside my friend Trish and her sister.

After the ladies left, I sat in a rocker on the porch thinking about my mother and her lovely garden.  In the fall of 1984, I walked with her in the backyard.  I steadied  a gardening stool so she could sit and prune one of her flowering bushes.  We stood together, enjoying the light breeze of early evening.  She seemed at peace.  Though the next year would ravage her body, in that moment, she seemed completely at home and complacent.

Peace; comfort; complacency:  Three conditions of my mother’s heart to which I aspire.

The Google Fiber guy just called. He’s due in 30 minutes.  A pile of dishes glares at me from the kitchen sink and the accusatory emanations of the laundry accumulated in my walk-in closet wash over me in waves.  And yes:  By and by, I’ll be violating my pledge not to complain as I write that blog entry about the treachery of the Congressional Republicans.

But just now, I’m going to pour another cup of coffee and go out onto the porch, where my mother’s spirit lingers on the morning air.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley


29 April 2017

Good evening, my friends —

Hear me out:  I have good reasons for writing these Musings so late in the day.  Hear me out.  I’ve a story to tell.

I made the decision to buy my first house under the most dubious of circumstances.   Carl Boehner and I sat on logs around a bonfire in the yard outside his mountain cabin.  We  held coffee mugs filled with some strong liquor, something clear that came from a make-shift bottle.  A little ways from the fire, an old dog scratched at the ground.  Once in a while, Carl would say something to the mutt in German and it would lift its head, gaze into its master’s eyes, then go back to scrounging for scraps thrown from the skillet suspended over the fire from a metal bar.

Carl’s hired man warmed his legs, sitting on an upside-down paint can.  Once in a while, he extended his arms to let the roughness of his worker’s hands take a little of the flame.

Carl said, I’m thinking of selling that place down by the road, and looked in my direction.  I took a long draw of the moonshine before I replied.

A week later, he gave me the keys to the 2500 square foot ranch, with its unfinished extension that Carl reckoned might make a good law office if I decided to leave our firm.  He told me he’d send his man down with a rick of firewood, double-split, stacked in the mudroom.  Without more effort than it took to sign my name on a piece of paper, at the age of 34 and newly divorced, I had bought my first home.

The following summer, I hired a carpenter from over in Eureka Springs to build a porch.  He made it so that the lines of the boards ran at opposing angels, with the invisible apex in the middle of the highway.  I had a privacy fence erected, and found a guy with a brush hog to keep acreage that came with the place clear enough for decent folk.

In the spring I discovered why the piers of the back porch had rotted when the South Fork of the White River overflowed its banks and lapped at the house’s foundation.  By summer, though, I could walk the western edge of my property on the smooth flagstone in the dry river bed.

If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, I might be there still, rocking, watching the hawks, on the quiet stretch of Old Route 7 after they put the highway through on the other side of the Boston Mountains.

If I hadn’t gotten pregnant, or maybe pregnant and left; or maybe pregnant and lost one twin with the remaining baby considered at risk.  I moved back into Fayetteville, to the guest bedroom of Ron and Laura Barclay.  Ron worked for the firm as my law clerk.  Laura was a secretary — mine at the time.  She held my hand when they wheeled me into the delivery room and was the first nonmedical person to cradle my son in her arms, all seven pounds, ten ounces of laughing baby.

Happy to be here!

Eighteen months later, I took the proceeds of the sale of the Winslow property back to Missouri and bought the Holmes house, 1542 square feet of Brookside bungalow with a fenced backyard and  a shared driveway.

Here, I raised my son.  Here, I married and divorced twice.  Here, I opened the gates of hell and let the demons claim me.  And here, for the last three years, I have tried to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Assuming I ever do.

When my son turned five, his pre-school teacher Magda Helmuth ordered me to take him upstairs to PS1 Elementary School to start kindergarten.  He’s ready, Mama, she explained in her thick German accent.  I closed my eyes and let the memories flow.  My Austrian great-grandmother talked just that way; and my old friend Carl Boehner, who swam from his boat off the coast of Baja California to bring me a geode.  I still haven’t cracked that sucker, but I imagine the beauty.  I am content to picture the brilliance of its crystals, the purple and silver, hidden inside.

When I walked Patrick upstairs that first day, Mrs. Helmuth stood at the bottom, outside the door of Purple Dragon Pre-school.  Goodbye, Patrick! she called.  My son turned and gazed down, then reached again for my hand and started his ascent.

Mom, he said, just before we reached the second floor.  Are you going to die before I’m big?

He asked a fair question.  In 1996, the year of this conversation, I had just begun to experience what would later be diagnosed as the reactivation of the virus which had besieged me in toddlerhood.  But no one yet knew what caused my decline; why I couldn’t breathe; why my lips and the beds of my fingernails turned blue and I slipped into unconsciousness.  Patrick had witnessed this more than once, and alone.  He’d had to call for help — for neighbors; for the police.  Once he had walked three doors down to get Beth and Randy.  He told them, I gave my Mom a blanket, and some water, and some crackers, but she won’t get better.  He was three.  Three years old, and taking care of me already.

On that auspicious day, his first day of kindergarten, I looked down at my son, at his Thomas the Tank Engine backpack and his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tennis shoes.  I fixed my eyes on his, pale blue under his golden curls.  And I did what any mother would do.  Any parent.

I lied.

No, Buddy, I assured him.  I’m going to live to be one-hundred and three, and I’m going to nag you every day of your life.

The stairwell fell silent.  I could see my son thinking about the number which I’d thrown out.  One-hundred and three.  I could feel him contemplating the idea of my nagging him, every blessed day of his life, until I turned 103.  Finally, he told me, Okay then, I’m going to ANNOY you every day of YOUR life.

On 14 February 1998, not quite two years after my son’s first day of kindergarten, an arrogant pulmonologist told me that I had six months to live.  Sadly, the man himself died less than a year later, leaving a wife and two teenage sons.

But I lived.

So much has happened since that day in 1989 when I decided to buy the place on the highway.  Bonfires have been built and extinguished.  Trees have grown and been felled.   I have loved and lost.  I have journeyed a thousand steps, and a thousand more, and a thousand more.

And on this day, this rainy spring day, I drove to Chillicothe with a dear friend and fellow Waldo Brookside Rotarian Jenna Munoz.  We assembled with a hundred or so Rotarians for the roll call of club donations to Shoes for Orphan Souls, and other business of District 6040.  Then, when the tally had been rendered, and our goodbyes said, we headed back west.

We stopped seven miles before the I-35 turn-off for very important business.

With deliberation and forethought, we turned the Prius off of Route 36 to stop at Country Cabin Village, built by the talented and gracious Kevin Kitsmiller and run by his beautiful, sweet-natured wife Kim Kitsmiller.  There, I put a down payment on my next house.

A tiny house, which Kevin has designed and will build, on a custom-made 8-1/2 x 24 foot trailer, and in which I will live out the rest of my days.  And no, before you ask:  I am not retiring.  I am just changing my address, and downsizing from nine rocking chairs to four.

I will be chronicling the building of the tiny house on the pages of this or some other blog.  It’s going to be Corinne’s Big (Tiny) Adventure, and I want you all to be a part of it.  At Jenna’s suggestion, I’m having a contest to name my tiny house.  It won’t be ready until September, so you have plenty of time to watch it grow and get a feel for its personality.

As for where I’ll park it, that remains to be seen.  I’ll keep you posted.  After all, I’m only 62 (this year), and I’ve got 41 more years to go.  I promised my son that I would live to be 103, and as he has always told me, a promise is a promise.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Yours truly and the trailer on which Kevin Kitsmiller is building my tiny house. Stay tuned. More pics to come as he raises the walls!

22 April 2017

Good morning,

The hours seem to slip from my grasp without hesitation or shame.  I rose before dawn but 8:00 a.m. sneaked by on tender toes while my eyes gazed through the window, seeing not the fragile leaves of the Japanese maple but the fleeting images of children cavorting on the lawn.  Now they dart out of sight, leaving me to wonder where they have gone.

Those children did not go to war, thank Heaven and all that stands holy.  They went to Denver, and Chicago, and Lawrence; and to the inner workings of computers.  One of the foursome left our circle by dint of divorce and death among his parents, birth and step.  One went as far south and east as possible, then west to the mountains.   One makes his life here.  The final of the four musketeers, my son, marched east, and now writes and rides the train in Chicago, searching for images to digitize.

Funny how three of the four made careers of the computing which they all loved.  Of the fourth, I have no knowledge.  His father died after divorcing the stepmother who brought him to our village, the village of my son and me, and these families of yester-year.  Patrick, Chris, Maher, and Sam.  Sam drifted away, but the other three met in pre-school and remained inseparable until distracted by girls and the angst of teenage.

I felt that I had my brood, when three or four boys darted down the driveway, brandishing wooden swords or barreling past on bicycles.  I hear their voices rising on the wind, echoing in the dusty, empty rooms of my waning middle-age.

I stand in the dim basement, summoning the courage to pull boxes from the shelf to start the sorting.  I turn my face towards the filth of these low casement windows.  Are those running feet, pounding the cracked asphalt?  Do those shouts seek help or just the courage to catapult over the fence to the yard, where a dog darts back and forth hoping to catch the boys at play?

I peel yellowed tape from the back of the door to the upstairs room.  Here we hung the house rules.  We called them the “Do Be’s”.  Do be kind, Do be careful with the possessions of others, Do put away your toys.  At night we invoked the “whisper rule”.  You could stay awake as long as you liked, provided that Corinne could not hear you from the first floor.  Their heads lolled against the pillows, propped on walls in the bunk beds.  One or two camped on sleeping bags in the large floor space.  They whispered; and sorted their Pokemon cards; and the surrounding silence lulled them to sleep, one at a time, first Chris, then Patrick.  Maher always stayed awake the longest, arranging the Z-bots for battle, or rapidly working the keys of a GameBoy.

It was Maher who heard the whines of our rescue dog Little Girl, the night that my son’s Beagle, Chocolate, tragically died.  I carry the guilt of that still.  I left them both outside.  I fell asleep, with  Chocolate on his lead.  He struggled; and we found Little Girl huddled next to his cold body, well before sunrise.  He’s buried in our side-yard pet cemetery, with Tiger Tasmania and the little black cat whom my son secretly raised upstairs.  I strain to recall his name.  He lived less than a year.  A terrible virus claimed him.  We all cried.  Oh, what was that sweet kitten’s name?

And Sprinkles lies in the same graveyard.  She died of old age, beneath my hands, lying in the driveway.  I sobbed as the light left her eyes, remembering when we got her.  I had taken three-year-old Patrick to McDonald’s so friends could install the swing-set that I’d purchased for a birthday surprise.  I asked him what he wanted for his birthday.  He stood on two little Ninja-Turtle-sneaker-shod feet and banged tiny fists on the table, crying out for everyone in the place to hear:  I want a father and a brother and a sister and a cat and a dog!

I got him the kitten the next day, from a pet shop in Overland Park.  He named her “Sprinkles” for the black spots dancing across her white fur.  A client who bred and sold Beagles from his farm in Chillicothe gave us a puppy the next spring.  Chocolate.

Get it, Mommy?  Chocolate Sprinkles!  I get it, Buddy.

When he left for college, he made me promise that none of the remaining pets would die before he graduated.  Sprinkles made it to the fall of his senior year.  Pablo, our boy Tuxedo cat which Patrick bought from Waldo Pets in our Mayo Clinic summer, lasted until the spring of 2016, seven long, eventful years as an unneutered male cavorting around the neighborhood.  He’s out there somewhere still, perhaps; and I see his offspring now and then.  Don’t judge me; Patrick decreed that his boycat would not be “fixed”.

Little Girl still rules the roost.  I feed her grain-free food and make sure to refill her Phenobarb on time.  God forbid that another pet should die on my watch, much less by my neglectful hands.

Those Z-bots occupy a box in the basement, inside a larger container filled with Hot Wheels.  On the highest shelf, I pray, another crate holds the wooden Brio train set.  I cannot bear the thought of parting with any of it.  But time draws to its fullest point; the future presents itself as a long slow slide to rest.  I need to travel light.  I have so much left to do, and so much less time than I realized in which to do it.  I face forward.  The whistle blows —  the train lurches forward — I draw in a full breath of the sweetest air imaginable, close my eyes, and grin.  A wild ride awaits.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley


15 April 2017

Good morning,

I’ve been thinking about these musings for a while.  They’ve evolved so much in the nine years during which I’ve been writing them.  At first, I sent out WWI poetry on Memorial Day Weekend in 2008.  Then, I started describing what I saw around me and seguing into a memory evoked by the events of my present world.  I ended with a return to the mundane or pleasant surroundings in which I found myself at the moment.  My friend Dave Littlehales mocked me once by saying that he knew I would finish by describing my hand clutching a cold mug of coffee.

Last night’s unrelenting neurological pain finally eased this morning, but not before it, too, triggered the rise of a memory long buried in the depths of my subconscious.  It’s neither horrible nor fabulous; it’s just one of those days that a child experiences which twists the neuro-pathways and sends them skittering in a newly forged direction.

I can’t say how old I was when my mother first started taking me to doctors.  A terrible childhood illness kept me in the hospital for tedious stretches  but I don’t remember that.  My first memory of unusual medical activity must have happened when I was eight or nine. . .

I’m standing at one end of an interminable hallway.  My mother huddles on a chair in a small room beside a wooden exam table covered with a starched sheet.  Someone stands over her.  At the opposite end of the corridor where I wait, a man in a white lab coat gestures to me.  “Okay, sweetie, now come towards me.”

I do as he asks.  I know why I’m here:  I don’t walk like everybody else, except my sister Adrienne.  She’s taken a lot of guff from our father for how she walks.  But I’m different:  He treats me with tenderness.  I wish he would do the same for her.  I shudder with an unpleasant memory; rage and punishment.  

Other people make fun of me, especially the boys in my class.  They stagger behind me acting like monkeys, swinging their arms and pitching forward halfway bent to the ground.  The girls titter behind the folding doors of the cloakroom.  I take as long as I can adjusting my coat on the hook but eventually I have to acknowledge that I’m there and I am listening to them.  My movement toward the rows of desks sends them into hysteria.  They knew; they knew all along that I would hear.

The doctor hasn’t laughed, not once.  He moves smoothly himself.  He’s lean and trim underneath his doctor’s garb.  His wiry hair clusters in curls around his head.  A gentle light shines from his eyes.

“Come towards me,” he repeats.  I realize that I’ve paused in the center of the hallway, lost in thought.  I hurriedly start forward but he shakes his head.  “No, just walk like you always do,” he corrects me.  “No hurry.  Just walk toward me, there’s a good girl.”

I hear my mother sigh.

A few minutes later, I’m back on the table and the doctor taps my knees with his red rubber hammer.  He  pricks my calves and asks if I can feel the sharp point.  “Yes,” I admit.  “Good, good, ” comes the answer in his soft voice.

He turns to my mother.  “When you get home, have her walk barefoot in water, then across concrete.  Measure the gap between the balls of her feet and her heel.”  They talk about medicine; my mother shakes her head. 

“She’s too young,” she replies.  “Can’t you give her some exercises?  Do you know what caused it?  Can you do anything?”

The doctor smiles at her.  I think, ‘Don’t smile at my mother like that,’ but I’m not sure why it bothers me.  I tell myself that his smile might be for me.  It’s the kind of smile you give children when you think they won’t understand you.  But my mother is the smartest and strongest woman I know, except maybe my Nana.  

We leave the place, my mother and I.  I don’t feel as though my mother has gotten any answers.  We take the bus home, trudging up the hill from the bus stop to our house.  My mother sinks into a chair on the porch, her pocketbook trailing to the floor of the porch from her arm.  Her eyes look far away.  I sit beside her.  We stay that way for a long while.  

Yes, Dave:  My coffee grows cold in the mug on my desk.  Outside my window, the sun has brightened the sky to a pale hazy blue.  In the uncleared gutters, baby birds cry out for breakfast.  The dog barks, just once, but I know she too wants food.  I briefly close my eyes and picture my mother’s face.  She wears sorrow like a badge of honor.  I’ll never forget that day, nor the sound of traffic from the window of the bus as we rode home.

Mugwumpishy tendered,

Corinne Corley

This bus reminds me of the ones we rode with our mother. Perhaps this photo comes from a few years before the one I remember riding that day. It all seems so long ago now, and all grey in my mind.

08 April 2017

Good morning,

The decline into dishevelment lands me in a soft place, surrounded by discarded jackets, scarves, and woolen hats.  Under the coffee table lies the computer bag which served me well trudging through both forest and cityscape on my NorCAL adventure.  All the lampshades have gone cock-eyed and I don’t recall watering the three plants which survived a winter indoors since before I left town.

I’ve pulled the Easter baskets from a top shelf and run my fingers around the edges of the name tag.  In faded writing, my first name reminds me of the patience that my mother showed to her scrapping kids arguing over who owned each Chocolate sugar-coated haul.  I don’t have to close my eyes to see the olive tone of her worn face or the faded edges of Revlon lipstick drifting from the curve of her smile.  She gently slips the coconut egg from Frank’s loot and trades it for something of mine.  Every time I avoid coconut these days, I remember the struggles of the penultimate Corley child with asthma, fifty years ago, fifty revolutions of the Earth around the sun in hour upon hour of love and life and laughter.

Now my small self makes a row of the orbs which we’ve dubbed blah eggs.  They wobble but stay relatively straight.  I sort them by color.  The banana curls of my long mud-red hair hang in coils down my back.  One spills forward as I focus on my counting.  Ten blah eggs, two bon-bons (one pink, one green), a half-dozen marshmallow bunnies, twenty-five jelly beans of assorted colors.  Two of my favorite:  Black.  At the head of the candy parade stands my bunny, still clad in her foil attire and fully possessed of both ears.

An arm swipes across the lot and my head snaps to attention.  Mark runs into the sunroom, his laughter trailing behind his darting heels.  I begin the patient count all over as the little boys, Frank and Steve, squabble over claims that each makes of promises to trade one find for another.  A bowl of colored hard-boiled eggs stands in the middle of the table.  From the kitchen, my mother’s voice admonishes us not to eat any more candy.  The baskets will be taken from us soon.

Ten blah eggs, two bon-bons (one pink, one green), a half-dozen marshmallow bunnies, twenty-five jelly beans of assorted colors.  Two black.  I hold one of the black jelly beans with the tips of two fingers and put it carefully between my lips.  My fingers turn grey as I suck the flavor — licorice over something vaguely tasting of vanilla.

Mother tells us, Okay now, set the table, as she carries platters of fried eggs and bacon into the breakfast room.  I’m the only one who obliges her.  I line the knives with their flat edge facing outward, towards the spoon.  The forks sit alone on the left with a triangle of paper napkin underneath them.  We save the cloth ones for Easter dinner, when I will have the job of tucking the folded squares inside our sterling silver napkin holders, each with an engraved name.

The eight Corley children flank the table.  Mother sits at one end.  My father comes from the living room, smelling of Camel Straights and stale beer.  He never goes to church with us, and he could shower twenty times and the stink of last night’s bar would still seep from his pores.  He sits next to me and says, Get your elbows off the table, Mark.

We know that voice.  Mark hurries to comply.  Then we bow our heads, and Dad says grace.  Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty, through Jesus Christ amen.  We cross ourselves, top, middle, left, right.  Then someone says, Pass the salt, please.

The plate of eggs makes a single round.  We run out of bacon before it gets to me but I don’t mind.  The boys need it more than I do.  Still, my father splits one of his pieces in half and winks at me as he places a piece on my plate.  I smear grape jelly on toast and press the crisp meat into the purple glaze.  When I fold the bread, a little bit of jelly oozes out.  I close my eyes and take the smallest imaginable bite.  I want the treat to last.  Each nibble tingles the tip of my tongue and blends the sweetness with the yoke of the egg lingering there.

After breakfast, the boys argue about whose turn it is to wash or dry the dishes.  Dryer puts away silverware, so we all prefer to wash.  Nobody likes to lay the silverware on a towel and dry each one, then haul them over to the drawer where they live.  I volunteer for that task.  Mark, Kevin, and I begin the job of getting breakfast dishes done, so Mom can start making the Easter dinner.  My father goes into the living room to read the paper.  Frank and Steve retreat to the sunroom to count their candy all over again and heckle each other about who has more jelly beans.  My older sisters vanish somewhere, to lie on a bed and read, or sit on the porch talking.

Five decades later, sitting with the heating pad on my healing back, I glance around the house for signs of Easter.   Dust dulls the wooden surfaces.  The old rattan blinds hang crooked over dirty windows.  Other than the aloe plant, nothing green thrives here — no cellophane sheaf of daffodils, no paper-whites springing from bowls of pebbles and clear water.

Outside, the red-tinged edges of the Japanese maple peak above the window sill.  Buds sprang from the awkward, rangy umbrella maple this week.  I keep praying the weather will hold so maybe, just maybe, Hazel’s irises will bloom full this year.  I sip my coffee, but its cold bitterness tells me that I have waited too long.  A ragged sigh courses through me.  Oh Mom, I say, outloud, to no one.  Happy Easter, happy spring, Happy, Happy Everything.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

01 April 2017

Good morning,

It’s well into April Fool’s Day but I don’t need a special day to feel foolish.  That’s every day.  That’s today, and yesterday, and all the yesterdays stretching backwards to the day when I first became aware that my skin didn’t fit the bones across which it stretched.

I remember that day.

Stop reading now if you enjoy these Musings  because they bring you sweet stories of the life of a Missouri Mugwump.  Click the delete button with your mouse or on your keyboard, or on your tablet’s screen.  I’m out of precious stories at present.  This one rose from the murky waters this morning.

Forty-four years ago this September, I started high school.  I should have run screaming out of the building when my mother and I met with the administrator to enroll.  Your sister Ann was Valedictorian of her class, he reminded us.  Adrienne was editor of Panis Vitae — the literary magazine.  Joyce chaired the social services club, SOS. Students Offering Service.

He paused, then asked, Which sister will you take after?

I almost corrected his dangling preposition but my perceptive mother quelled me with a raised eyebrow.  I glanced at the sign on his desk which said, When in doubt, mumble.  So that’s how I responded, with a demure murmur of something vague.  He seemed to accept my remark as indicative of good intent, for he rose and welcomed me to Corpus Christi High School.

By the end of September, the pattern which would mark my four years there had been chiseled in stone.  The girls who welcomed me all had similar backgrounds and natures.  They came from families that could be considered lower middle class.  They were intelligent oddballs, living on the fringe in the all-girls Catholic high school across the parking lot from where I’d been  just the same in grade school.  You’d know me:  The girl with glasses, who walked funny and whom the boys all teased and the girls heckled.

That girl.  Not the “it” girl; not the popular girl; the side show.

I cried a lot in those days, maybe more than I realized.  I volunteered for everything — the literary magazine as well as the social services club and a whole lot more.  I took photos at the Father / Daughter dance because I had no desire to urge my father to get sober and attend with me.  He asked; I just looked at him and remarked, I’m the school photographer, I’ll be there taking pictures.  Children can be so cruel.

That night, I sat on the stairwell outside the gym listening to the music, the school’s camera idle on the step next to me.  Suddenly the door behind me opened and a girl came out.  I didn’t know her.  She sat down beside me and took a pack of cigarettes out of a little handbag that she carried, a pretty thing that matched her shoes.

She lit the cigarette and blew a long stream of smoke into the air.  I coughed a little and turned my head away.

You’re that freak in the freshman class, aren’t you, she said.  Your Dad’s not here either, is he.  

I shook my head and lifted the camera from the step.  You want me to take a picture of you and your father, I asked.  She shrugged and said, Sure, the old guy’d like that.  We went into the building.  I fussed with the composition then took several shots.  The man thanked me and asked if he could get a copy.  Sure, I said, echoing his daughter’s casual tone.  She rolled her eyes behind his back.

On the following Monday, I sat at lunch with the usual group.  Jeanne Chrismer, Marie Clark, a few others.   We talked about our weekends; about tests we had that week.  Marie told a story about horses, one of her obsessions.  Someone asked, So where is your Dad, and they looked at me.  I lowered my eyes and said, Oh, I don’t really know, he’s just around somewhere.

At home passed out, I didn’t say.  He wanted to come to that stupid dance but I wouldn’t let him, I thought but refrained from  mentioning.

Jeanne hugged me and Marie changed the subject.  Whoever had asked the question didn’t press for an explanation.  We finished lunch and hurried to our next class.

A few days later, I studied the pictures from the Father-Daughter dance to choose which ones would go in the Yearbook.  I spent a long time looking at the shot which I had taken of the girl who sat outside and smoked.  Her dad’s arm encircled her shoulders.  She looked adoringly at him.  I  laid in on the table and walked over to the windows, staring down on the garden which the biology teacher carefully cultivated.

Mother Biology, we called her.  Regina Marie, I think was her actual name.  She paid 5 points per weed pulled by any of her students.  Those points could be leveraged to a solid A regardless of how you scored on her exams.  I myself had filled many bags with dandelions.  She trusted your count.

The fall garden lay bare and brown beneath the window where I stood.  I felt the chill of autumn pressing against the glass.  I laid my forehead down on the marble sill and wept.

The dog’s persistent bark penetrates the reverie into which I’ve fallen.  I see a message from my hairdresser reminding me of an eleven o’clock appointment.  I  let the memories settle back into the dim recesses of my mind where they normally reside, the sweet and the silly; the sad and the sublime.  I know they will wait for another day, when I summon them to come and be examined.  For now I have more memories to make.  I reach to close the computer as the sounds of a spring morning drift into the room around me.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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