Holiday Houseguests

The Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. is winding down. All over America, houseguests are preparing to pack their bags, return home, and file away memories of time with friends and family.

Our three-day adventure with Milo and Miley in our Scottsdale condo is drawing to a close. While our friend Austin visited family in Colorado, his lovable, ever-licking Shih Tzu pups followed us around the house, slept with us, tumbled on the floor, paraded on leashes near ripening fruit on citrus trees, and–occasionally–barked at passersby.

They even got to meet and play with Kirk and Nick my thirty-something sons, who joined Tom and me on Thursday for turkey, green beans, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, apple crisp, and World Cup viewing/prognosticating in our humble abode.

To be sure, the holidays are all about family. I’m thankful Tom and I had time with my sons. But it’s also about the furry friends (permanent or otherwise) that grace our lives, make us laugh, wake us at 5:30 … and even attempt to practice morning yoga before they return to the comfort and familiarity of their forever home.

Miley and Milo couldn’t quite get the hang of downward facing dog, but they sure enjoyed licking my face while I stretched on our sunroom floor.

I Hear and Remember

It wasn’t an unpleasant sound that stirred my brain before 5 a.m. It was a light desert wind filtering through our tubular chimes that woke and evoked me and distant sounds. Reassuring, comforting ones from suburban St. Louis.

***

Mom was always the first one up.

From my middle bedroom–a connecting space with two doors wedged between the hall and kitchen–I could hear her creaking on linoleum, shuffling in slippers, opening drawers, turning on the dial to the radio, reaching into the refrigerator, sizzling bacon in a skillet, placing the kettle on the stove, and pouring hot water over a teaspoon or two of instant coffee.

Then, at night–when the day was done–it was the splash of rain and swirling sensation of fallen leaves on the metal awning outside my bedroom window that soothed me. Or Happy’s soulful howl, craning his neck as he responded to the calls of other dogs in the neighborhood.

As I huddled under the covers on a twin bed, these sounds beckoned me to sleep. Now, as I remember them and write about them on my laptop, they exist and endure.

Certainly, the memory of them gets richer because they have been gone longer. They rise to the top like the cream of milk, while what happened yesterday might easily be forgotten tomorrow.

I would be lost if I couldn’t listen and remember the sounds of the past. In the moment they were invisible, fleeting footprints. But they echo in my thankful memory … lasting reminders of the texture, meaning, depth, people, and love I hear and remember.

Royalties with Heart

I confess. Like many independent writers, I dream of dozens of rave reviews online from readers and a steady stream of royalties.

But that rarely happens. Most of us are not that fortunate. It doesn’t mean our books aren’t worthy of praise and financial rewards. It just means that it is difficult to remain visible and compelling without a marketing budget. The literary competition runs wide and deep in the Amazon distribution ocean of new and old releases.

Even so, behind the scenes–when someone buys one or more of my books on Amazon–royalties appear on my author dashboard and land magically in my checking account a few months later.

It isn’t the amount that makes me happy. (It’s usually a trickle, no more than five or ten dollars, though in a rare month the dollars can spike higher.) It’s the acknowledgement that someone continues to derive value and meaning from one of my “very creative, heart-warming stories.”

That phrase in quotes is the way the staff at Barnes & Noble in Mesa, Arizona describes my books on their shelves. When I saw this, I felt honored because the motivation for my writing comes from my heart and the myriad of emotions–love, loss, happiness, discontent, hope, disappointment–we all feel.

Recently, a development director with the American Heart Association (AHA) in Arizona asked if I would be an Executive with Heart to help raise money for their 2023 campaign. Without hesitation, I said “yes.”

Technically, it runs from February 1 through March 24 and concludes with a Heart Walk in the Valley of the Sun. But on “Giving Tuesday” this year (November 29) I will donate the $200 in book royalties I have earned in 2022 to the AHA to help support the fight against heart disease and stroke. An anonymous donor will match that amount.

Ironically, in the coming few months, I will remember both of my parents who succumbed to heart disease. My dad died after suffering his second heart attack on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving twenty-nine years ago. My mother passed on January 26, 2013–nearly ten years ago on a frigid Illinois morning–due to congestive heart failure.

In their honor, I will increase my $200 donation to the AHA by $10 for every purchase of An Unobstructed View between now and November 29. In case you don’t know, the book is a personal account of my transformative journey with Tom, moving from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and navigating a frightening detour in St. Louis in between. It’s my heartfelt story of survival.

I hope you’ll purchase a copy for yourself or a friend. When you do, you will fill my heart with joy and benefit others–like me–who are building strong hearts and longer, more meaningful lives.

Over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, I encourage you to also give thanks for those you love and those who love you … and the heart that beats inside you every moment of every day.

Empty Soles

November 3 was a brisk Thursday morning in Scottsdale, Arizona. But when I walked past these empty soles on the edge of Camelback Road after my workout at the gym, I felt an eerie sensation. It was almost like learning a close friend had died or vanished.

My focus shifted immediately away from our cooler-than-average temperatures in the Valley of the Sun. I felt compelled to pay tribute to the remnants of a life well lived. To stop and take this photo and–three days later–write a story about what I saw and felt in those moments. Because that is what I do.

What would provoke someone to leave behind a pair of decent canvas shoes on the side of the road in such an orderly fashion? Did they suddenly outlive their usefulness? Perhaps they were simply an extra pair a homeless person could no longer carry. Or the sensible shoes were forgotten by someone who waited for a bus and was ready to advance to the next station in life.

For my storytelling purposes they are a metaphor for the sense of displacement many of us feel in our country. We’ve been pushed to jump out of our shoes from the criminal escape antics of our past president and the barrage of political ads spewing venom through our devices. Whatever the case, we wait for the next shoe to drop as we anticipate the outcome of the mid-term elections.

If you follow my blog, you know I am a positive person. Generally. I’m thankful for the beauty of nature that surrounds me and the quieter life my husband and I have carved into the desert landscape.

But as a nation we teeter on the precipice of despair. The future of democracy–as I’ve known it for my 65 years and 181 years before that–is definitely on the ballot this coming Tuesday.

Tom and I have already voted. Nearly two weeks ago. I checked the boxes alongside the names of only those who will protect our democracy. Not the high-profile election deniers in Arizona running for senator, governor, secretary of state, and attorney general. We need to believe them when they tell us they wouldn’t necessarily respect and honor the will of the majority of the people.

If you live in the U.S., be sure to vote on or before Tuesday. When you do, I hope you will support those who uphold our beloved U.S. Constitution.

Otherwise, I fear that the close friend who disappeared without their shoes is actually the democracy we once loved before we allowed it to vanish.

Eleven Moments

No ordinary Tuesday, but eleven moments (5:05 to 5:45 p.m.) captured as the end of the first day of the eleventh month draws near in our south Scottsdale neighborhood. Displayed in reverse order. Clearly, what the Sonoran Desert lacks in vibrant fall foliage, the sky delivers with kaleidoscopic splendor.

Above and Beyond

Completed on this day fifty-seven years ago, the Gateway Arch served as a catalyst for St. Louis’ mid-twentieth-century renaissance.

The six-hundred-thirty-foot-tall structure was then, and still is, that gleaming stainless-steel phenomenon and symbol, soaring above and beyond the banks of the Mississippi River. It replaced a sagging riverfront packed with dingy brick warehouses and smokestacks.

It is impossible for me to reflect on this city I love–the place where I was born which now bears little physical resemblance to what I remember half a century ago–without acknowledging the magnificence, continuity, and meaning of the Arch.

In late 1965 shortly after a construction crew finished the project, I stood directly underneath it with my parents, looking straight up from the base, running my palms across its smooth-and-shiny skin. It would be decades before sapling trees would grow tall enough to create this park-like atmosphere you see here.

For three summers–1977, 1978, and 1979–I worked underneath, around, and inside the Arch as a history interpreter for the National Park Service. It was a fabulous job for this then-twenty-year old idealist and history buff.

I gave tours in the Museum of Westward Expansion, talked about the city’s founding as a French fur-trading post in 1764, and played color commentator for wobbly visitors as they gazed across the Missouri and Illinois horizons through tiny windows at the top of the Arch.

In those days that federal landscape was defined as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, because the Arch was built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and recognized St. Louis’ pivotal role in the westward expansion movement.

Of course, the concept of westward expansion conjures sometimes-controversial overtones in this era. Of white settlers moving west to push Native Americans from their land.

But no matter your point of view about U.S. history, the Gateway Arch constitutes an architectural marvel at the very least and a symbol of pride for St. Louisans past and present.

In 1947, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen won a competition with his Gateway Arch design. His concept included reflecting pools on the ground to soften the sharp edges of the monument that carves its path through the sky.

Unfortunately, Saarinen didn’t get to see his masterpiece completed. He died September 1, 1961, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, while undergoing an operation to remove a brain tumor.

But the rest of the world watched with wonder four years later. When construction workers–dancing on the edge of the sky–inserted the capstone piece to connect the north and south legs of the Gateway Arch, St. Louisans breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed their brighter-and-shinier identity.

Fifty-seven years later, I understand the surrounding trees have matured, and the Arch grounds have been connected more seamlessly with the rest of the downtown area.

And the Gateway Arch itself? It’s still standing and an inspiring site to behold.

My Fortunate Life

I lead a fortunate life. I don’t mean that in a material, financial or social sense; like many of you, I am concerned about inflation, the bear market, high gas prices, potential fall-out from the mid-term elections, and global and domestic horrors eroding personal freedoms, savings and investments, and a general sense of security for you and me.

Still, I acknowledge I have more to be thankful for than most people: a modest-but-comfortable home in a warm climate; a loving and supportive spouse; two adult sons who are gainfully employed and contributing members of society; a diverse community of friends; and the time to pursue and develop my literary and musical interests.

Plus, I’m a relatively healthy, sixty-five-year-old male. I make it a priority to exercise regularly, eat smart, and see my doctors as needed. Though it’s been more than five years since I suffered a mild heart attack, I haven’t forgotten the trauma of July 6, 2017, or dismissed the gratitude I feel for that team of doctors and nurses at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri–people I likely will never see again.

That painful experience no longer defines me. It has paled somewhat. Yet it informs my choices, perspective, and sense of gratitude. It has morphed into a badge of survivorship, which I feel an obligation to share with the universe through my writing and day-in-day-out personal encounters.

Occasionally, I receive a fund-raising or participation request from an Arizona contact with the American Heart Association (AHA). We met in 2018.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to share my story of survival–virtually–with employees of a large retail organization on October 17. To explain that donations to the AHA aid lifesaving research that allows heart and stroke survivors–like me–to enjoy longer and more complete lives.

So that’s what I’ll be doing on Monday. Twice … once in the morning; once in the afternoon. Telling my story of survival in three to five minutes to a large group of employees via video conference.

I figure it’s the least I can do to pay it forward and possibly ease the pain for some other unsuspecting man or woman, who with the help of the AHA might live longer, breathe more easily, and witness a few more breathtaking sunsets in the Valley of the Sun or elsewhere.

On October 5, 2022, I captured this Sonoran sunset in Papago Park on my walk with Tom a mile from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Mighty Mosaic

When I auditioned for the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus in August 2017–six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack on the way west–we were both on the cusp of a transformation.

At sixty, I was searching for a new place to renew my love of singing (after seven years performing with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago); the chorus was twenty-six, preparing to spread its wings and a few years away from embracing a more public gay identity: the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

On Saturday evening, October 8, I stood on stage with about fifty of my chorus mates at the Kroc Center in south Phoenix. We performed our Mosaic of Voices concert. It was our tribute to triumphant stories shared by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community–told through the power and inspiration of music.

I wore two hats for the occasion. Figuratively, I mean. I sang second tenor from the top row of the risers and realized a new creative wrinkle; I wrote the lyrics for three of the original songs we performed in the first set: Hope’s Trail, Our Second Act, and Mighty Mosaic. David E. Weck composed all of the music beautifully.

The first two were adapted from compelling, emotional, and personal stories submitted by Garry and Nico, members of the community. When I first read their stories in 2021 and began to develop lyrics, I felt it was important to honor and include many of their actual words in my lyrics. In turn, David then nurtured and shaped them into music.

The third song, Mighty Mosaic, began as a poem I wrote, specifically for the Mosaic of Voices concert. I created it to represent the rich, diverse, and sometimes-circuitous lives we lead in the LGBTQ community.

After last night–with its unveiling on stage before an appreciative audience of a few hundred–you might be inclined to call Mighty Mosaic an anthem. (It certainly felt inspiring for me to write it on June 2, 2021, and then sing it on October 8, 2021.) It celebrates who we are and what we believe. Here it is in its original form, before my words met David’s artful music.

***

Mighty Mosaic (Copyright 2021 Mark Johnson)

Morning, noon, and night, the fabric of our winding threads and uncertain spools form a fluid tapestry of brilliant and imperfect hues.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

In the heat of the day, our worn but sturdy strands lead us down rabbit holes, but–if we keep the faith–the enduring threads carry us through.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

We may travel from a foreign home or body, but when our identities emerge, they awaken our lonely spirits, they blend beautifully.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Our jagged journeys–our truth trails from the pain of stark midnight to the peace and stillness of lavender daybreak–make us mighty.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Gay, trans, straight or bi–black, brown, or white … single, attached, or married … young, old, or in between–this is our mosaic and the moment we celebrate what it means.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Quiet, Yet Meaningful

Like any and every significant life moment, Saturday afternoon at Barnes & Noble in Mesa on S. Val Vista Drive produced a series of visual snippets–memories which today on the day after (and hopefully, always) cascade through my tired, but appreciative brain.

It was a quiet, yet meaningful, experience for this independent writer–connecting with a handful of aspiring writers and avid readers (unfamiliar with my stories).

Best of all, I was the fortunate recipient of another giant dose of love from family and close friends here in the Valley of the Sun.

Thank you, Tom, Glenn, Dave, Jeff, Nick, Anastasia, Libby, Gregor, Ron, Carol, Merrill, Torie, Jasmine, and Tashi. It was a thrill to sign my books for you and feel the warmth and encouragement of your creative spirits.