Though the road of life is paved with good intentions, it is often treacherous.
Four years ago this week, Tom and I accepted an offer on our Mount Prospect, Illinois, home. As we approached another milestone–our shared sixtieth birthday–we crossed the threshold into a new chapter and stepped closer to the warmer life in Scottsdale, Arizona, we dreamed of.
Though we planned extensively, nothing could have prepared us for the tumultuous turns we would navigate together on the way west in July 2017.
Published in 2018, An Unobstructed View, chronicles our journey. Here’s what one reader had to say in April 2020:
“This wonderful and uplifting book reads like a compilation of short stories, but it is beautifully woven together to demonstrate all interconnections that make up a community and a family. The book also pays tribute to people who may only be in our lives for a short time and emphasizes that a brief encounter does not diminish significance.
Mark’s story is one of courage. Courage to start a new chapter in life, and courage to move forward with optimism even when life throws the ultimate curveball. His journey will take you through his love of baseball, the joys of owning a dog, and the challenges of being a gay man. Although these are only a few of the anecdotes he explores, you’ll quickly notice that the book is well poised to connect with a large readership.”
After the past year we have endured, all of us are weary survivors. If you need a dose of inspiration and gratitude, download a Kindle version of my book on Amazon. It’s just ninety-nine cents through May 8.
It’s time to dig out the loose change that’s fallen between your couch cushions and put it to good use! From April 23 to 30, you can download a Kindle copy of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, for just ninety-nine cents on Amazon.
Set against the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, my anthology of thirty-nine essays (some whimsical, some serious) explores the themes of family, community, authenticity, creativity, and uncertainty before and during COVID-19.
Here’s what one reader had to say: “Focusing on stories from his recent relocation as a full-time Arizona resident, Mark mines his past for insights into his new life, reflects deeper into the after-effects of surviving a health crisis, and even includes poems and works of short fiction. A great new collection from a distinctive contemporary voice.”
Late yesterday afternoon–a mid-April throwback Monday squeezed in before the Sonoran heat arrives in full force–I met John and Len, my full-time, sixty-something friends and part-time Polynesian Paradise neighbors, at the north edge of our community. We played horseshoes.
Two sandy, part-sun-part-shade horseshoe pits (spaced about fifty feet apart) have existed in our condo complex since the early 1960s. In 2021, residents and guests seldom use them. It’s more common for folks to walk by and not think twice about the horseshoe pits and their history on the way to their mailboxes.
That didn’t stop John, Len, and me from reclaiming the space and recapturing a practice that our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed more frequently in the twentieth century. The primitive, low-stress gaming experience was just my speed: slow, nostalgic and gentlemanly. It was a light-hearted, jovial hour of tossing, joking, clinking, clanking, and male bonding. (By the way, John won on Monday. He came from behind with a well-tossed ringer. Len and I will survive. We will live to throw horseshoes another day.)
Anyway, the activity rekindled a memory I wrote about and published in 2017 in a story titled They Pitch Horseshoes, Don’t They? from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri recollections from the 1960s and 70s. It’s available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
What follows are excerpts. The setting? Babler State Park and the rolling rural countryside thirty miles west of St. Louis in October 1961. While the men were throwing horseshoes that day, I discovered a primitive-and-glassy nirvana: marbles.
Clink clank clink. Clink clank clink. It was the sound of metal on metal. The men in our family–Dad, Uncle Ralph and Uncle Harry–were hammering stakes into two sand pits about fifty feet apart. They sure do like to fling horseshoes, don’t they, I thought. Within minutes, they were tossing the U-shaped irons from one end to the other, hoping to catch the right angle and rack up a ringer …
On this particular occasion, while the women in our family unfurled the tablecloth and unpacked the meat for grilling, and the men settled into their game and passed cold bottles of Falstaff between throws, I wandered down a path to investigate the picnic area. That’s when I found a vacant campsite nearby and an abandoned plastic bag of multi-colored glass marbles wedged into a gap between the flat rocks of a stone bench.
In my visual memory, this was a To Kill a Mockingbird moment. You know, like when Jem and Scout found Boo Radley’s toys and trinkets buried in the trunk of a big ole tree. In hindsight, I suppose Boo had nothing to do with my glassy discovery. Another child had simply and accidentally lost his or her marbles. For some period of minutes, hours, days or weeks, these multi-faceted marbles were no one’s. They were lost in an unassigned gaming galaxy. But in the universe of fair play, it was Finders Keepers. This treasure was mine …
When I pulled Dad away from his pitching and showed him what I had found, his smiled doubled instantly. It felt like we had discovered a whole new language mined from an archeological dig … In a flash, Dad and my uncles suspended their horseshoe tossing, reverted to their childhoods, and surrounded me with explanations and names for the different marbles–many of them laced with swirls of colorful strands …
Marbles became my forever home of circular undisrupted creative possibilities. After our 1961 picnic was over and the sun began to set, we snuffed out the campfire, folded up the red gingham tablecloth, and packed away our picnic basket. I stepped up into the back seat of our Plymouth with my new marbles in tow.
Over the coming weeks and months, Dad pitched more horseshoes at the farm of Ed and Ollie Puetz near Gray Summit, Missouri, where we picnicked with family and friends and I watched the men drink another round of brews and play the game they loved.
Meanwhile, I added marbles to my glassy collection: aggies (made of agate) swirling with various ribbon patterns inside, tigers (clear with orange-yellow stripes), opaques (milky green, blue, and gray marbles) and cat’s eyes (they look like what they sound like).
All of my marbles became a creative extension of me. I played my instant-game-in-a-bag any time and any place–mostly at home on our basement floor on ordinary rainy days after kindergarten. All I had to do was obey one rule: “Mark, don’t leave your marbles in the middle of the floor.”
I love sharing the company of friends and devouring the sweet, creamy goodness of a wedge of cake. When they appear in the same space at the same time–in this case celebrating the launch of my latest book on Sunday, March 28–that’s a perfect day.
One of the Polynesian Paradise board members invited me to talk about I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree and sell and sign copies of my book. He even picked and gathered a half dozen lemons from the tree near our front door and placed them in a bowl on a table in the front of the condo clubhouse.
So there I was, seated at the front of the room, at the table with the lemons and copies of my books at two o’clock on Palm Sunday. Outside, through the glass, I could see children and adults splashing and playing in the pool, framed by palm trees. Inside about thirty-five neighbors and friends sat and stood, fanned across the room before me.
With my husband Tom, older son Nick, and his girlfriend Aida observing in the front row, I had that moment every writer dreams of. I had the rare opportunity to read a few stories from my latest book out loud. I had the chance to talk about why I love to write about the things I do: nature, family, community, and life’s serendipitous moments.
It was a remarkable and unexpected thrill, made possible by the acceleration of vaccinations across the country and in our condo community. Those in attendance even signed and gave me a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion. Tom and I will pop the cork on that at a later date, just to remember the moment once again.
Without question, we have come a long way in one year. We’ve felt the pain, the losses, and the sadness. We’ve done our best to endure the social retreat. I know this pandemic isn’t over, but the numbers of cases and deaths have diminished. Life is better now. Thanks to science and the availability of vaccines, we’ve begun to reemerge.
It sure feels great to see friends and to socialize again … and to eat cake.
This week marks five years since I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground. In celebration of the anniversary of my entry into this literary life, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from March 24 through 28. What follows is the story of what brought me to this moment. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope reading this will provide a little added encouragement.
If you look and listen closely—and breathe deeply—you will find spring stirring in the Sonoran Desert. Sweet and fragrant orange blossoms dance through the air. Lizards and ground squirrels reemerge to scamper and soak up the sun. A hummingbird darts and twitters in a Palo Verde tree. I imagine a lone loon, descending from a blue sky, is practicing for his pilot license. He receives clearance from nearby Sky Harbor Airport traffic control and lands with a graceful whoosh that ripples in the Crosscut Canal. A monarch butterfly flits and rests on a bud near the fence of the Desert Botanical Garden, pausing long enough for me to creep in for a closeup of nature’s transformation.
This central Arizona winter-to-spring progression is a warmer, dryer, more gradual shift—a far cry from the flurry, upheaval, and calm of a midwestern lion-to-lamb experience I had been accustomed to for my first sixty years. Nonetheless, it is a March metamorphosis.
Five years ago, like a clumsy butterfly, I emerged from my own cocoon. At age fifty-eight, I launched my first book From Fertile Ground. I remember the anticipation and anxiety of March 24, 2016—the day my book emerged—as I moved from wannabe writer to published author.
I felt exhilaration. It was as if I were boarding a rollercoaster, gripping the bar tightly, grinning ear to ear, throwing my arms in the air, and shouting “Look over here” as my book entered the literary universe. Maybe I sound immodest, but it was and is such a thrill to have discovered this better-late-than-never renaissance.
Previously, as a busy single dad and on-the-go communication professional, the idea of writing on my own terms seemed like a faraway neverland of creative euphoria. But slowly, as I drifted from the gravitational force of my previous orbit, I felt the magnetic pull of an artistic life.
This literary life sprung from a personal void, molded from the fog of my grief after my mother died in January 2013. At that point, I was lost with plenty of tears, but without the language of emotion that normally came easily for me.
Fortunately, I was not alone on my journey. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my husband and a skilled therapist, I forged ahead, jotted notes in my diary, took a few nature photography classes, and slowly stepped away from a thirty-four-year advertising, PR, and consulting career. It had sustained my bank account and carried me through leans years of single fatherhood, but ultimately drained my energy and creativity.
Early on, after my corporate “retirement” there were moments of doubt and uncertainty to contend with. Even so, the more I wrote in my journal, the more I felt my voice begin to emerge. Within a few months, my writing and reading led me out of the darkness into the light.
A litany of wisdom-filled letters my mother sent me—along with a boxful of more than fifty years of diaries my grandfather left behind—spurred my creative impulses. I sequestered myself and perused them all. They spoke to me and my love of family, heritage, and history.
One day in 2014, as I turned the yellowing pages of my grandfather’s rural life—his spartan existence—an idea surfaced in my brain. It told me to weave a tale of three writers telling their stories across the generations, leaving behind a trail of their own words. In that moment, I found a new passion. From Fertile Ground was born. So was my life as an author. I prepared to emerge from my cocoon.
A year of daily soul-searching, writing and editing passed. In late 2015, I finished my manuscript. With the help of a friend, I found an editor and graphic designer—Anna and Sam—who came highly recommended. They both lived and worked in Nashville, Tennessee.
Instinctively, I liked hiring professionals with connections to the South, because much of my story shared a border with Tennessee to the east—in the rolling red earth of rural North Carolina. That is where my mother was born, where my grandparents owned a farm, and where my sister and I frolicked and spent parts of our summers in the 1960s.
Anna provided me with her recommended edits in January 2016. Following that, I collaborated with Sam. With my input, he created the cover for my book, designed the interior pages, formatted the text, and loaded it into the Amazon self-publishing software.
By late March 2016, I held the first copy of my book in hand. Friends and acquaintances began to send notes telling me they enjoyed reading my book and were moved by it. It was a joyous period in my life, far from the tears and fog that had preceded it just a few years before.
I take long walks in the desert and collect photos to stir my imagination. I marvel at the beauty and continuity of nature that surrounds me. I give thanks for the gift of life in a warm and rugged place.
In my previous life, working as a consultant in the human resources world, I often helped companies communicate with employees about changes to their benefit plans.
Inevitably, this included grandfathering certain groups of long-service employees–insulating them from the benefits changes that would affect newer employees only.
This story is not about benefits. But in a sense it is, because I think my grandfather–Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell–benefitted the world like all bloggers do when we leave behind our words, impressions, and observations.
S.R. penned his spartan, daily diary entries for more than fifty-two years–1933 to 1985. I featured a few dozen of his diary entries in my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation writer’s mosaic about love and loss, which I wrote and published after my mother died.
Though S.R. scribbled all of his thoughts in long hand in tiny diaries and worked without a laptop or access to the internet, he lived like an early blogger extraordinaire–going about his rural North Carolina routine as a hosiery mill worker and later a farmer. At the end of each day, he recorded the minutia and magnificence of his days.
Born on March 9, 1901, today would have been S.R.’s 120th birthday. In honor of my him (and the writing impulse that motivates and haunts all of us bloggers), my grandfather is my guest blogger today.
This is what S.R. Ferrell wrote fifty-nine years ago on a momentous Tuesday. It also appears as the opening to chapter two, Off Into Space, in From Fertile Ground.
Thank you for leaving behind a trail of your life, S.R., and Happy Birthday.
Tuesday, February 20, 1962
Watched Glenn’s capsule take off into space at 9:47 a.m. It made 3 trips around the earth at altitudes from 100 to 160 miles and the time for the three circuits was 4 hours 56 minutes and 26 seconds.
I went to Huntersville to send money order for insurance premium. Went to see Frances and boys.Fair. Cool. Ethel came by in afternoon. Martha Auten came to get turnip salad.
I feel the pain and glory of every writer. We build the frames of our books, chapter by chapter. The process takes years. It is the culmination of time, art, and commitment.
We begin in the darkness in front of an empty page or a blank screen. We write a sentence or two that makes sense. We add and subtract in words. We rinse and repeat. We submerge ourselves to find the deepest meaning in the mundane and the spectacular.
One day, after months of determination and doubt, our rough draft is done. But we pause only briefly. We don’t want to lose our momentum. We dive back in for round after round of edits, because we want our stories to adhere to each other and to every reader who spends time with them.
Finally, the rewriting and polishing reveal the stories we intended. We invite a few trusted professionals, an editor and graphic designer, to join us in the literary chase. They stand by us on shore as we rewrite and polish passages, as we search for and discover the perfect cover, as we tweak phrases one final time, as we launch our true and false stories into the world.
As I watch my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, begin to bob on the waves of the reading world in the middle of a global pandemic, I wonder. What will happen next? Who will read my book? What will it mean to them? What will readers have to say about it?
These are just a few of the questions we independent writers ask after our stories set sail. We are brimming with ideas, but also uncertainties. We have little control over where our stories land. All we can do is breathe life into them, guide them from afar, send a little money their way, push trade winds in their direction, and wait to hear about our creations once they have landed.
Now that I have published I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I feel like an empty-nester. All of the nurturing and sculpting is over. My purpose and attention has shifted from writer to salesman.
There is nothing too surprising about that. The frustrating part is that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. There are limited opportunities–none, really–for the face-to-face interactions I crave with readers. I don’t have a chance to talk about my books with people. Because I am mostly an extrovert–though much less so as I’ve gotten older–I miss that terribly. The only legitimate opportunities for authors to promote and sell their books are online.
Even so, on Wednesday afternoon, I manufactured a little of my own author interaction. I drove to the Scottsdale Public Library. I donated a copy of my latest book for its Local Author bookshelf. This is something I’ve done three times before.
Previously, this act was followed by a physical Local Author Book Sale, where readers and authors meet. (To replace the in-person fair, there is an online local authors talk series conducted through our library. I missed the deadline for submitting a video to participate. I was focused on finishing and publishing my fourth book.)
While at the library I spoke with Wen-Ling, a pleasant woman who coordinates some of the local author activities for the library. From one side of a glass partition I described my latest book to Wen-Ling and my passion for writing memoirs. She told me the staff hopes to reinstitute the Local Author Book Sale in 2022.
After our interaction, I found my energy. I raced back to the parking lot to my car to find a bookmark for Wen-Ling and postcard with information about my books. I returned to the library information desk, placed my printed materials on the counter, and waved to her. Wen-Ling was helping another patron, but from behind her mask she thanked me for donating my book. I smiled back and said goodbye.
It was a simple exchange, and the kind of thing I used to take for granted in our pre-COVID-19 world. But all of that has changed now. As Tom and I–and most of us in the world–wait to be vaccinated, I will continue to look for small ways to stay engaged. Whether I’m there for a mini book chat or just trying to stay healthy on the treadmill of life, I will always need to find ways to connect with those around me.
With all the energy and enthusiasm I’ve bestowed upon my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, Tom and I are certain our middle-aged fig tree has been feeling sad and neglected.
We first observed signs of this in the fall as I labored to complete my manuscript. Tears began to appear on the trunk. (Actually, the moisture was wetwood-causing bacteria and/or sap leaking from several spots.) This was likely a byproduct of messy sewer-related digging outside our front door that disrupted the roots in the July of 2020. It was one more irritant provided by a despicable year that was supposed to offer us perfect clarity.
Fortunately, the oozing didn’t deter our beloved fig from bearing fruit or producing its typical canopy of green and welcome shade from the Sonoran sun. Even so, we were worried. So, in the fall, I bought some fruit tree spikes and planted them at various places around the circumference of the tree. This deep-root nourishment–along with more frequent watering and an occasional bath of bleach (which Tom has provided on the leaky spots)–seems to have solved the leakage problem.
Pruning the gnarly fig tree is another matter. It’s something that must be attended to every winter. In previous years, a few of our neighbors (Mario and Yolanda, who winter here from their home in Italy) have supervised and completed this task. Not in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented them from returning this year.
To fill the gardening void, Tom and I decided to step in and offer our services. If you read my book, you’ll discover this isn’t the first time we’ve trimmed fruit trees. We researched the best way to prune fig trees and paired that with our previous gardening knowledge and the love of plants and flowers that runs through my DNA.
On the morning of Thursday, February 4, we gathered our gardening gloves, two ladders, and three pairs of clippers. We cleared the area of potted plants beneath the tree. We pruned the fig tree.
This was a big job that involved climbing on a ladder, trimming the smallest branches first, and sawing off or lopping the medium-sized ones. The goal? To trim the fig down to a stump of its previous likeness, so that it will return with gusto and a new crop of branches, leaves and delectable fruits–remarkably all within six months.
After reaching, snipping, and sawing for two hours, we gathered the debris from the ground, deposited it in our condo community dumpster, guzzled a few bottles of water, and stretched our sore back and neck muscles.
Now, a mere skeleton of the fig remains. In a month or less, new growth will appear. That will be followed by longer branches, dozens of ripe figs in July, and a bouquet of green stretching toward the Sonoran sky.
Never fear, this annual haircut was just what the tree doctor ordered. It’s all for the sake of the fig tree. I don’t want its sense of neglect to intensify and become full-blown jealousy when that avalanche of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree sales I fantasize about starts rolling in.
The trail of my literary life has led here. The Kindle version of my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, is now available on Amazon. (Paperbacks are in production and will be available for purchase at this same location on Amazon in the next few days).
The rush of adrenaline I feel today is at least as satisfying as books one, two and three, because I’ve devoted more than three years to this creative endeavor–imagining, developing, polishing, and agonizing over it.
In that sense, today is a combination of the exhilaration of unwrapping Christmas presents, skipping out the door on the last day of school, feeling weak in the knees the first time I approached the edge of the Grand Canyon, and hoping for a clean bill of health from my cardiologist. It’s all of that rolled into a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies.
In this anthology of Arizona stories, I dig deeper into themes that are important to me: the lasting love and comfort of family and friends; the humor, irony, and poetry in everyday situations; the profound beauty of nature and how it shapes us; the joy of realizing a literary life; and the conviction required to be an authentic gay man–a real gay couple–in a world often rife with ignorance.
As you might expect, the upheaval we have all faced in Coronaville (my name for our shared global address of uncertainty) is present here too. How could it not be? The pandemic has dominated our lives and–at its core–this is a non-sequential personal and societal 2017-to-2020 slice of life.
All of these themes–and flights of fancy (backward and forward in time) to visit familiar and new people and places–run through my book. They are the threads in this tapestry that has become my writing style. They are the elements of the sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-serious voice I have unearthed in my life with Tom in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.
As we wait for our vaccinations and continue to hope we will recapture the most important strands of our disrupted lives, I think you will find comfort, honesty and humor in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. I also think it is a testimonial to the importance of our families, communities, and human connections as we strive to sustain ourselves no matter where we live, no matter where this journey leads us.