The Soldier on the Hill

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When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.

Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.

***

I talked with the soldier on the hill today.

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand–all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

 

I Didn’t Know, Indigo

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I didn’t know what roads we’d take eighty-two thousand miles ago.

“I bought a new car, Mom” … “What color is it?” … “Indigo.”

I didn’t know we’d escort her ashes in Illinois.

I didn’t know we’d dodge a windswept tumbleweed in Albuquerque.

I didn’t know we’d take a desperate left turn in St. Louis.

I didn’t know we’d go back to the Grand Canyon rim to gather pine cones.

I didn’t know any of it seven years ago.

I only knew you’d be the one to carry us home.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 21, 2019

 

In the Aftermath

 

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Though darkness abounds,

There is an opening in the aftermath.

An ever-widening aperture of love and hope.

It reminds us to focus on who we are at the center.

Able captains of our bodies, minds and spirits.

Imperfect, yet free and unencumbered.

Seekers of light and truth.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 17, 2019

To Stand Tall

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The world has gone mad. Last week, I felt it personally.

***

On Monday at the gym, bully #1 sprayed venomous, hateful words at me in a weight-lifting room. He claimed I had usurped his space on a bench. He was wrong. It was vacant when I stepped in briefly. At any rate, I was smart enough to walk away from someone far more muscular.

I was also scared enough to recognize old wounds from my adolescence … bullying and humiliation in middle school hallways and locker rooms by larger, straighter, nastier boys who wielded the “F” word and ruled by physical intimidation without adult supervision.

Before I left the gym, I reported the incident to an employee. A few minutes later the reality of what had happened hit me. I cried in the car with my husband Tom by my side.

***

On Saturday at the local market, Tom and I had just bought scented soaps from a vendor. She’s a friend and single mother. I hugged her, knowing her children will be leaving soon for the summer to spend time with their dad.

Before we left, I stopped at a booth to enter my friend’s name in a Mother’s Day drawing. That’s when it happened. “Are you a mother?” bully #2 asked rhetorically. She covered the entry box with both hands and shook her head.

“No, I’m not,” I replied. “But a friend is. I’d like to enter her name in the contest.”

She scolded me. “Vendors aren’t allowed to participate.”

With all the sarcasm I could muster, I glared back and thanked her for “the pleasurable experience of meeting her.” My hair was on fire. I stomped away. Tom stayed long enough to tell bully #2 and her manager how rude they were. We both wondered if they would have treated us the same if we’d been a straight couple.

***

On Sunday, Tom and I missed our mothers. They both died several years ago. Naturally, we still feel the weight of grief. We always will on Mother’s Day. To find solace, we hiked to the Desert Botanical Garden in the morning. It’s one of our favorite spots to be alone with our thoughts. To see the cacti and succulents bloom. To watch the quail and ground squirrels skitter. To escape our worries and get lost in nature.

As we walked along a path, a six-or-seven-year-old boy and his extended family approached us. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he shouted gleefully. “Thank you. Same to you,” I responded with gusto. Instantly, the child stole my heart on a garden path in the desert. At least for a few moments, he renewed my faith in humanity.

Before Tom and I left the garden, we stopped to buy a desert rose. I wanted to pay tribute to my wise, garden-loving mother by planting new life in the sun on our back patio with two similar roses. I wanted to give us hope that one day we’ll live in a world with stronger leaders, who have greater compassion and desire to help protect young children like the one who greeted us with unbridled joy. Leaders who will fight against bullying, rather than foster it.

Until then, I need this third desert rose to remind me to remain true to myself. To continue performing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus, as I did on Saturday night at a benefit for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. To speak my mind as a concerned American, husband, father, son, neighbor, and gay man.  To stand tall in a world gone mad.

Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

Twilight by the Pool

 

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I’m fortunate to live in a charming, mid-century condo community in South Scottsdale with a gorgeous pool and rich history. Traditions and ripples run deep here at Polynesian Paradise. From memories of grandparents, close cousins, great aunts and uncles living under the slanted-and-peaked roofs of their Googie-style architecture.

Many early residents, Chicagoans with Italian heritage, discovered their desert hideaways in the 1960s and 70s. Others came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Canada. They all traveled south or west to escape brutal winters and forge a new life in their twilight years.

During the day, Lucy (my husband’s soft-spoken grandmother) and her friends gathered by the pool to soak up the sun, unwind on a lounge chair, read a book under a kitschy umbrella, sip a cool drink or play cards in the clubhouse while their laundry flapped on the clothesline in the dry breeze.

At night, as palm trees painted sunsets over western skies, these westward-ho pilgrims dined on pasta and cannolis lovingly prepared by good-hearted neighbors like Sam (my husband’s grandfather). He spent his working years making cookies at the Nabisco factory back in Chicago and needed an outlet for his boundless energy. He found it in the condo clubhouse kitchen.

From January through April each year, as the rest of the world shivered on frosty Wednesday nights, the warmest stars aligned over the desert. Delighted residents and their guests shouted BINGO, collected their winnings, and sauntered home down sidewalks to their modest desert dwellings illuminated by porch lights.

Of course, Lucy and Sam are gone. So are most of their friends and neighbors. Like Connie and Sam who lived a few doors away. They were surrogate parents who coached us on the dos and don’ts of closing down our desert home when we were still fresh snowbirds straddling two worlds: one in Illinois; one in Arizona. Both of them died a few years ago, though their last name still hangs on a wall plaque outside what was once their door.

And Anita, another long-time resident, who passed away early in April. She was a familiar-and-friendly fixture at the pool. Tanning on her lounge chair with her extended, manicured nails. Listening contentedly to her favorite oldies on her transistor radio. Though I didn’t know her well, I miss her presence. I miss her connection to all the others.

Sadly, the soaring prow on the clubhouse façade is gone too. The condo association decided to remove it a few years ago, because the wood had begun to rot. It posed a safety concern for those walking beneath and the cost was too prohibitive to repair it.

Fortunately, though, all is not lost. Life goes on at Polynesian Paradise. With a fresh coat of exterior paint and a new generation of residents (grandsons and granddaughters, nieces and nephews, singles and couples) the community spirit lives on. There are still social gatherings in the clubhouse each month. Donut and hot dog days. Holiday parties. Yoga on occasional mornings. Bingo has moved from Wednesday to Tuesday nights when the snowbirds are in town.

Many in our community are over sixty, like my husband Tom and me. Living our twilight years in a pleasant condo community with an inviting pool. But there are a growing number of younger, full-time residents living here too. Infusing the community with new energy. Remodeling and updating their condos. Heading to work and school each day. Walking to their cars past cooing doves that nest under our eaves.

We’re all neighbors. Some of us enjoy a regular dip in the pool. Some of us don’t. But we’re all in the same boat. Finding our way in the world as new condo communities rise up around us in South Scottsdale. Doing what we can to live the best versions of our own lives in the Sonoran Desert. Just like the Sams, Lucys, Connies and Anitas who’ve come and gone before us.