Turning Stuff into Wisdom

I’ve learned a lot in my sixty-four-plus years. Sometimes it feels like my brain is a swirling repository of “stuff” … data and memories.

On other days, it feels like I’ve found meaningful ways to synthesize my life experiences and relationships. Then–voila–I discover they have morphed magically into wisdom.

I’m not sure exactly when this wisdom thing began to kick into high gear, but probably in my fifties after my mother died. Then, certainly again at sixty when I suffered a mild heart attack. In both cases, I had to find my way back to the surface to breathe again and survive the depths of despair.

Most definitely, it is the challenging aspects of life–loss, fear, anxiety, discrimination–that prompt me to more forcefully explore, verbalize and share my opinions and feelings … not the happier, even moments.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have a few friends/relations who are dealing with difficult stuff. One is grieving the loss of a significant loving relationship while trying to find his way in a new job; the others are navigating the precipitous physical decline of two frail parents.

In both situations, I am there to provide empathy and support. I imagine these individuals feel as if they are lost in a dense forest without a compass. Yet, I suspect, the clouds will lift eventually. On no particular schedule, light will begin to filter through. Hope will reappear.

One day, the internalized aspects of loss and pain will spring from the ground like crocuses emerging from the frozen ground of winter. And, a new batch of wisdom will be born and saved for the next difficult encounter of life.

We Remember

Last night my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends and I rehearsed at the Parsons Center for Health and Wellness surrounded by AIDS quilts. In a moment of silence, we remembered the suffering and all of the lives lost to a despicable disease. Today, on World AIDS Day, “we remember all those lost to AIDS who had no one to memorialize them. They live in our hearts.”

As December Approaches

No flurries to be found, few leaves on the ground. It is morning sweatshirt weather as December approaches the desert from beyond mountain peaks.

Without ice to navigate, bighorn sheep shimmy down opposing buttes. Ducks paddle away the hours. A lone kingfisher trolls the canal for a morsel or two.

This is not the forecast for Decembers I remember. It is a warmer one I wish not to relinquish; the beginning of the last round of desert rose buds.

As November lapses and the twelfth month unfolds, nature delivers beauty and hope to our doorstep with the promise of blooms through Christmas.

Pie and Pottery

My husband is an excellent cook. In a given two-week period, he gladly prepares chicken, tilapia, salmon, cod, turkey meatloaf (along with potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans) and pasta of every kind. I am thankful for him and all the things he does for us.

What is my contribution? I am the baker in our family. I concoct corn bread, blueberry muffins, chocolate chip cookies and the like. Oh, and on special occasions, I prepare and bake pies.

Our two deep dish favorites are egg custard (a silky treat handed down from my southern/maternal family) and Dutch apple (a recipe I found online several years ago). The latter has become our go-to dessert for Thanksgiving.

More than cake or cookies, I think the smell of pie baking in the oven will always cue my emotions and provide deep dish comfort. That first and last forkful of crumbly goodness with a cup of coffee won’t hurt either.

Anyway, this morning I stood over the kitchen sink and sliced eight Granny Smith apples for this year’s pie filling. Over the years, I’ve discovered the tartness of Granny Smiths make them ideal for baking.

That piece of wisdom came from my mother. So, naturally, I thought of her as I prepared a pie for Tom and me. It doesn’t matter that my mother has been gone for nearly nine years. Her influence in my life endures.

During the last four years of Helen Johnson’s life, she lived at Brighton Gardens, an assisted living facility in Wheaton, Illinois. My mother loved to bake and glaze ceramic pottery in a class there.

For her last Thanksgiving–2012–our family gathered a few weeks early in a community room at Brighton Gardens to celebrate the holiday together. Mom was in hospice at that point and declining rapidly, so that seemed like the safe thing to do at the time.

Meanwhile, back down the hall in her empty apartment, I can still imagine the shelves and tables of her room lined with family photos and a dozen or more of her prized pieces of homemade pottery.

Remarkably, my mother lived two more months. After she passed, my sister Diane and I held a memorial in early February for her. We brought many of the pieces of pottery with us to the funeral home and placed them on tables around the room.

When family and close friends departed after the service that night, we asked that they choose a piece of her art and take it with them.

Today, I still have at least a half dozen of Mom’s fired-and-glazed pottery from her Brighton Gardens days in our two-bedroom home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

At Thanksgiving every year, I bring out this ceramic turkey-shaped napkin holder she made. It is inscribed with her name “Helen J.” brushed on the bottom.

It’s stationed on our Thanksgiving table … next to my delectable, deep dish Dutch apple pie … ready to create a new batch of memories for Tom and me on Thanksgiving Day 2021 in our Arizona home.

Thanksgiving Gift for You

Here in the U.S. we are preparing for Thanksgiving. For some, that will mean traveling again–despite this unrelenting global pandemic–to see loved ones and share a feast. For others, it will consist of a quiet, simple meal at home (if we are lucky to have one) with little fanfare.

No matter which end of the spectrum you find yourself on, I hope you have the opportunity to reflect on what you are thankful for as November’s days wind down.

I am most thankful for good health, the love and companionship of my husband, a cozy condo in a warm climate we call home, and the positive relationship I’ve nurtured and forged with each of my adult sons.

It’s a real gift, after suffering a mild heart attack in 2017, to see Nick and Kirk grow and evolve in their thirties … and a welcome change from the heavy-lifting of child rearing I experienced in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Near the top of my “thankfulness” list is the time, ability, and creative energy to write. I’m proud of each of the four books I’ve drafted, polished, and published since 2016. (Plus, since May 2018, I’ve worked diligently to generate and post 286 stories and poems here on my blog. That’s an average of seven pieces of free original content per month.)

If you are a regular follower or first-time visitor who has stumbled upon my page, I have wrapped up a Thanksgiving gift for you.

Through November 25, go to Amazon and download your free Kindle copy of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my latest book. (By the way, if you live outside the U.S., I believe many of you will be able to download a copy through your local Amazon connection.)

If you’re an independent writer like me, you know how important and challenging it is to try to build traction with a community of readers. Online reviews help immensely.

So, once you finish reading my anthology of thirty-nine whimsical and serious essays, I hope you’ll take a moment to rate and/or review my book online.

Thank you to my loyal followers, and happy reading!

Lingering Light

Inviting but ominous as an empty bench, November casts its lingering light over Phoenix. It fades from somewhere to nowhere, between the gauzy clouds, beyond the distant mountains.

Arizona Fall League

Where can you watch promising, future major league ball players perform outdoors in seventy degree temperatures in November, while spending just seven dollars a piece for two seniors to sit behind home plate?

At Arizona Fall League games at Sloan Park in Mesa. Consider it the perfect spot for baseball purists, major league scouts, western hat wearers, avid autograph seekers, foul ball hawks, and anyone simply wanting to chill in the shade and eat peanuts under the radar on a glorious afternoon in the Valley of the Sun.

Final score on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 (as if it really mattered): Glendale Desert Dogs 3, Mesa Solar Sox 2.

Are the Grapefruits Ripe Enough to Pick?

No writer wants to be known as a one-trick pony. Yes, to this point I’ve written mostly creative nonfiction, but each of my four books includes flashes of poetry. And, in my latest book of essays–home grown on the metaphor of pruning a lemon tree in my desert community–I also dabble in fiction.

In other words, I have no problem branching out into the great beyond of fruit trees. Grapefruits, for instance.

Here in our Polynesian Paradise condo community we live among lemon, tangelo, orange, fig, and lime trees … even a lone pomegranate. But we are surrounded by a bumper crop of pink and white grapefruits that will be ready to pick in late December. They are a far cry from the maple, elm, magnolia, oak, and gingko trees of my Midwestern past, which will be bare soon.

I’m not a fan of grapefruits. They’re too tart for my palette. Plus, if I ate them they would counteract the positive effects of the statin medication I take to keep my cholesterol count in the normal range.

However, Nick–my older son who lives near us–craves these tangy softball-size citruses. (I remember my dad loving grapefruits too. In fact, Nick resembles him. It’s funny how certain likes, physical qualities, and personality traits skip a generation.)

This afternoon I texted Nick this photo with a grapefruit update: “You’ll be happy to know the grapefruits are shaping up. They’ll be ripe in a month or so.”

“Oh nice” was Nick’s laconic response.

As the citrus-plucking season draws nearer in Arizona, here’s a snippet from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, my book of whimsical and serious essays available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon.

***

Nick is especially enamored with the citrus trees—most notably, the plethora of grapefruits that dominate our condo complex grounds. In December and January each year, Nick the Citrus King contacts me frequently concerning the status of the ripening citrus crops. His texts or phone conversations begin something like this:

“Hey there. Are the grapefruits ripe enough to pick?” There is no preliminary happy talk such as “How are you feeling, Dad?” before the citrus cross-examination.

Aware of Nick’s citrus sensibilities and no-frills communication style, in January 2020—as a belated Christmas present—Tom and I surprised him with his own fiberglass fruit picker. We gave him one with a durable steel trap and extendable arm, which would extend his reach to grab the largest orbs clinging to the highest branches in a galaxy far beyond low-hanging fruits.

Upon receiving his gift, Nick’s smile grew three sizes. With the flexible picker in one hand and a few empty bags in the other, he and I set out to corral a selection of the sweetest and juiciest citrus delicacies we could find in the common areas of our complex.

Twenty minutes later, we returned to the condo with a mix of white and pink grapefruits, tangelos, lemons, and oranges. Harry & David would have been proud to grow, pick, and ship them to Vitamin-C-starved customers in cold-and-gray winter climates. 

Without a crystal ball or a notion of where to find a citrus psychic, I have no way of knowing where Nick’s quest for fresh grapefruit will lead. But I am gratified to see him plucking fruits from the sky and flourishing in his Arizona life despite the heat.


Pride

Today I will march (and sing) in the Phoenix Pride parade with other members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. As an open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–married to another open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for.

I remember the unactualized, closeted version of me in my thirties, the sense of isolation I felt after my divorce in 1992, the challenges of single parenthood as I sat alone in the bleachers (in a sea of suburban straight couples) watching my sons play ball, the pain and anxiety that ruled my life as I moved from job to job and tried to find my way.

Fortunately, by the mid-90s, I found friends and colleagues who supported me. They cheered when I came out and began to speak my truth.

In hindsight, knowing what it felt like to be ridiculed for who I am sharpened my empathy. It gave me strength and insight that–more than two decades later–I parlayed into my writing. In all four of my books, especially my latest, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I tell the story of my personal and gay evolution.

Telling my truth has proven to be cathartic and healing. I am the happiest when I give voice to my experiences and opinions, whether they relate to my sexual orientation or not.

In 2021, I rarely find myself confronted with blatant homophobia. But there are occasional “teachable” moments when I encounter someone who is ignorant or unaware that gay people seek the same love, understanding, and sense of belonging that straight people receive unconditionally.

I don’t have a problem getting up on my soapbox to defend that right, though I also don’t crave controversy. I prefer simply living honestly and openly, and letting those around me observe how I lead my life … versus the pitfalls of social media exchanges.

The key is visibility. The more of us who are out–and proud–in our daily lives, the more individuals in all circles will realize we have the same hopes and dreams: a loving spouse and family, a safe and secure home, gainful employment, personal freedom, a sense of community and belonging.

As I march in the Phoenix Pride parade today, I’m sure I will see all sorts of people in the crowd: Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Native American. Many of them will be lesbian or transgendered or gay like me. Others will be straight allies cheering us on. There is power and creativity in our diversity.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in American society since I struggled along in the 1990s. But hatefulness has seen a resurgence. There are still instances of gay teens being kicked out of their homes or individuals losing their jobs, simply for being who they are.

What can we do as a society? Teach our children to love each other and embrace our differences. Because kindness is a choice; sexual orientation is not.

***

Pride postscript. It’s Saturday evening in Arizona. Though the parade is over, I will always remember the sense of freedom and inspiration I felt today. Shouting “Happy Pride” to exuberant strangers three deep along the parade route … all of us survivors of a frightening pandemic. Skipping down Third Street and singing Born This Way with my gay friends.

Rejoicing at the large number of young children in the crowd with gay and straight couples twirling rainbow flags. Waving to my smiling husband wearing his floppy hat. Celebrating the day with a rainbow umbrella that colored my world and protected my fair skin from the blazing sun.

What Is Remembered Lives

Long after the most cherished and meaningful moments pass, our memories–good, bad, vivid, and foggy–endure like saguaro cacti dotting the terrain of our vast consciousness.

***

Over the weekend, the lone survivor of my mother’s prized African violet plants died. Tom and I discovered it withered on the window sill of our Scottsdale condo. I supposed it succumbed to the heat of the desert’s afternoon sun.

I’ve chronicled the journey and symbolism of Mom’s African violets before–here and in two of my books: From Fertile Ground and An Unobstructed View.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom when she moved north to be closer to my sister Diane and me in 2004.

When Mom died in January 2013, Diane divided up the remaining African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

For the next four years, my cuttings flourished in our Mount Prospect, Illinois home. In early July 2017, Tom and I wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. We brought them west from Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

On the road, after I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis and couldn’t lift anything for a few weeks, I remember my husband carrying the African violets between our car and hotel rooms in Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico to protect them from fluctuating temperatures overnight. It’s a memory I will always treasure.

When we arrived in Scottsdale on July 12, 2017, Tom and I deposited the plants on our southern-facing window sill. The pink African violet lived two more years before petering out in 2019. Now the purple one is gone too. It last bloomed ten months ago in January 2021 … eight years after Helen Johnson’s passing.

Of course, I feel a twinge or two of sadness. This marks the end of a long, circuitous chapter, connecting my present life to the past memories of my nature-loving mother.

But, at this point (four-plus years in my Arizona home), Tom and I feel rooted in the desert. We have chosen and nurtured plants that embellish our life in this warm, dry place: bougainvillea, desert roses, succulents, even a bird of paradise.

To be sure, though their physical evidence is gone, the stories of the traveling African violets and the memories of their captivating blooms will be with me as I hike the rises and falls of the Sonoran Desert with Tom.

What is remembered lives.