Back in July, I wrote a story about Barnes and Noble stocking my memoirs on its shelves in Mesa, Arizona.
A month or so later Rachele, the community relations manager, invited me to sign my books there.
It will happen on Saturday, October 1, from 1 to 3 p.m. at their Dana Park store, located at 1758 S. Val Vista Drive. I’ll even have the opportunity to read a few passages.
(No, it hasn’t sunk in that this independent writer will have this blissful moment in a large bookselling space among the work of more-renowned writers.)
Anyway, I realize most of you who follow my blog don’t live in the Valley of the Sun. But if you do–and you’re looking for a creative outlet this weekend and a story or two to add to your fall reading–stop by.
She’s been gone nine-and-a-half years. I no longer feel the frequent weightiness of her loss. But on this day–what would have been Helen Johnson’s ninety-ninth birthday–I do.
My mother was a lifelong gardener and nature lover. So, this morning–as a symbolic gesture–Tom and I walked the Desert Botanical Garden. It was quiet and muggy there; just us, a few other couples, and a parade of random reptiles doing push-ups on the concrete path before scampering off.
Grief is a tricky thing. If you’ve lost someone you loved (and who hasn’t?), the discomfort appears as an uninvited clunky extra, who wanders on stage to disrupt a scene … only to vanish until the next anniversary, birthday, favorite song, or serendipitous moment.
As a soothing balm, I have kept the treasure trove of hundreds of letters my mother sent me. They represent a lifetime of her wisdom–her pain, joy, uncertainty, pride, denial, and acceptance. It only became wisdom and the catalyst for my first book, because she had the foresight to share it.
Perhaps the image of her–sitting at her desk or dining room table composing another letter–is her greatest gift of all to me in my literary, later-in-life years.
Out of her death and my grief, I was able to comb the beaches of her life (and mine) and make sense of it. Her letters–like this joyous one from 1999, which I included in From Fertile Ground–are the meaningful shells that washed up on shore and remain.
July 11, 1999
I really enjoyed your visit! It is good to see you happy and at peace. The fact that you plan to end your group therapy indicates a confidence in your life’s path that is reassuring. I wish for you continued growth and success in every area of your life. The next 20 years should be your best!
The boys are growing up. Nick seems to have recovered some of his old verve and displayed more of the child of old than I had seen in a few years. As he matures and charts his own course as a man, more of that lovely, lovable child nature will return and be revealed to his family members. Kirk is still an adorable rascal and much fun to have around. Enjoy it. Everything can change quickly …
Love to you and the boys. Hello to Tom.
Two years before, in the fall of 1997 while vacationing with her sister Frances, Mom wore a light blue hat in this grainy photo. She scoured the South Carolina shoreline for seashells and shark teeth. She marveled at the way the ocean’s high and low tides polished their sharp edges.
Twenty-five years later, I marvel at the wisdom and intellect my mother shared and left behind. It is her letters and my love for her that linger.
Around the age of fifty, Tom and I nurtured our creative ritual.
On cold Chicago-area Sunday mornings, we bundled up and drove east from Mount Prospect to the Barnes & Noble in Evanston to browse books and movies, sip coffee, play Scrabble, and imagine “what if.“
Fifteen years later, I’m living on the other end of the temperature spectrum. Today, in the oven-like heat of this Sonoran summer, we drove to Barnes & Noble on Val Vista Drive in Mesa, Arizona. It’s about fifteen miles from our Scottsdale condo.
Remarkably, they’re stocking my books on their Local Author and Biography shelves. It feels like I’m living a dream come true.
If you’ve ever doubted your ability or passion (as I certainly did when the grind of life had worn me down), don’t give up. It’s never too late to carve a new creative path.
I haven’t been agonizing about my milestone birthday–coming soon on July 6. But I am hyper-aware of the significance of turning sixty-five times two. (My husband and I were born on the same day in 1957, just thirteen hours and three hundred miles apart).
Sixty-five is both an age to celebrate–thanks to my new Medicare coverage I now pay nothing to refill my cholesterol medication–and a number to face with some trepidation.
Certainly, there is wisdom that comes with this station in life. That–and the daily company of my best friend–are the best parts of finishing another lap around the track.
In that spirit, on Independence Day 2022, I’ve assembled this random list of sixty-five thoughts … observations/reflections from the first six and a half decades of my life that came to me today as I walked the treadmill at the gym.
These items may or may not have significance or meaning for you. Either way, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share what I’ve learned so far about this rollercoaster existence that is the human condition.
#1: I am certain that love and loss are close cousins.
#2: Travel broadens the mind and gives me greater perspective about my place in the world.
#3: I am more inclined to connect with spiritual souls than those with specific religious beliefs.
#4: A good therapist is always worth the money.
#5: It takes time for most of us to find our way.
#6: Once I began to really love myself, I found greater peace.
#7: Save whatever money you can. It will ease your plight later in life.
#8: Each of us is more valuable than whatever salary we earn.
#9: Listen to your inner voice. It’s seldom wrong.
#10: A good cry is both cleansing and necessary at times.
#11: Get enough sleep. It rejuvenates the mind, body, and soul.
#12: We all need a home … a safe place away from the storm.
#13: See a doctor asap if you don’t feel right.
#14: “I’m sorry” are two powerful and underused words.
#15: In spite of their troubles, both of my parents loved my sister and me with all of their hearts.
#16: On the other hand, family isn’t necessarily defined by where you came from. Sometimes it’s what you create with friends later in life that carries you forward.
#17: Depression is a real and frightening thing. Get help if you need it.
#18: Whenever I’ve shared my true feelings, I’ve built greater trust.
#19: Animals and nature soften the blow of life and make it sweeter.
#20: Tenderness and honesty are very sexy.
#21: Music — and singing — soothes and inspires my creativity.
#22: Children need love, guidance, and structure.
#23: Learning is a life-long odyssey.
#24: I was always meant to be a writer.
#25: A phone call with a dear friend can make everything better.
#26: Don’t give up on yourself. Sometimes the best advice is to simply get through the day.
#27: Divorce is a shattering personal experience.
#28: The best relationships provide you with enough room to learn and grow.
#29: The end of something is also the beginning of something.
#30: Humor and laughter are contagious and underrated.
#31: When you really open your eyes, you see beauty and serendipity in unusual places.
#32: College or a trade school education is essential to build a solid foundation.
#33: Flowers make me smile and brighten my world.
#34: Life is an open road of possibilities. Driving places can be great therapy.
#35: We all deserve love.
#36: Swimming keeps me happy and healthy.
#37: You need a good dermatologist when you live in Arizona.
#38: I love the warmth and solitude of the Sonoran Desert, but I’ll always be a Midwestern boy at heart.
#39: While math and technology confuse me, words and ideas light my fire.
#40: Ice cream always makes life better.
#41: Personal wealth isn’t defined by the amount in your bank account.
#42: I knew my husband was special right away. He has kind blue eyes.
#43: I have always loved being a dad … and I’m good at it. I’m a nurturer and cheerleader.
#44: My sons have added a dimension to my life that grows with each passing year.
#45: My mother was incredibly wise. She wrote detailed and encouraging letters to family, neighbors, and friends alike. My love of gardening came from her.
#46: My father’s enthusiasm carried me to parades and ballgames that brought me joy. Despite his personal pain, I now see the full measure of his best intentions.
#47: There is nothing wrong with sentiment. You need a dose or two of it to write a good memoir.
#48: I still miss the dogs of my past lives: Happy, Terri, Candy, Scooby-Doo, and especially Maggie.
#49: Being gay is a gift, not a liability. Being different has sharpened my empathy.
#50: I’m inclined to think 65 is the new 50 … at least I hope it is!
#51: I love holding hands with my husband in a movie theatre.
#52: The truth matters. That lesson applies to children and adults.
#53: The current state of our country–especially the violence–worries me.
#54: My heart is stronger than I realized.
#55: Nothing lasts forever, but I want to believe it will.
#56: I am passionate and loyal … to those I love and those who love me.
#57: I’ll admit it. A St. Louis Cardinals win (or loss) can change the course of my day.
#58: I will always cherish the time I spent with my grandparents on their North Carolina farm.
#59: I was a committed employee in every job I ever had … and a damn good rollercoaster operator.
#60: I still keep the National Park Service uniform and hat I wore when I worked at the Gateway Arch.
#61: I still can’t believe I’ve written and published four books. Do I have another one or two in me?
#62: I love the meditative aspects of yoga … and recommend it to all heart attack survivors.
#63: At this stage of life, I look younger with shorter hair.
#64: Aging isn’t so bad most days, as long as I keep moving.
#65: I am thankful for the constant love and companionship of Tom, my husband.
Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.
It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.
Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.
The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.
Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.
I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.
Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.
That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.
You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.
If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.
Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.
In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence.This story first appeared inAn Unobstructed View.
In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.
Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.
When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.
Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.
Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.
It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.
“I love you guys,” she said.
“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.
Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.
And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.
We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.
It only seemed fitting.
In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.
In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.
The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.
Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.
Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.
Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.
Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.
For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.
As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.
Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.
Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.
Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?
2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)
To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!
On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.
About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.
Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.
The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.
As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.
Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.
We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.
As a writer and gardener, I’ve learned there is constancy and comfort embedded in the rituals of life.
Each time I sit before my laptop to tell another story I feel a sense of grounding. My hard-working grandfather, the North Carolina farmer, must have understood that. He kept a journal every day for fifty-two consecutive years–from 1933 until the day he died in 1985.
Less about his personal reflections, much of what S.R. Ferrell wrote was about the day-in-day-in responsibilities of farm life. For instance, forty-nine years ago on his seventy-second birthday, this is what he had to say:
I did my farm chores in cloudy foggy wet morning. The mud is getting deeper by the day. I mopped the kitchen after I got my outside work done. I changed my clothes and went to Huntersville to get prescriptions filled. My 72nd birthday. Jimmy, Frankie and Frances came and ate lunch with us today. Mamma and Zelma called and talked to me. Cloudy, wet, muddy, mild all day. More rain expected tonight. 54 degree low; 60 degree high.
There is nothing spectacular in these words until you consider that he wrote down his thoughts for more than five decades. Little did he know that–long after he was gone–I would read every page of his journals and (after my mother and his daughter died) write a book about the writing DNA that runs through my blood.
Now that I’m a desert rat, I keep a speckled rock from S.R.’s farm in our Arizona garden. At this moment, it’s wedged in the ground under our fig tree. Every time I water the tree, I see the stone. It reminds me of my southern roots and connection to the earth.
In keeping with the ebb and flow of nature and lineage, I do this ceremonial gardening dance twice a year. In early December, I lug my beloved desert roses (aka, adeniums) inside away from winter’s chill. They hide dormant in the darkest corners of our condo until March, when I haul them back outside to face the world again.
Yesterday morning, one day before S.R.’s 121st birthday, I renewed part two of this desert rose ritual. This year, it also happened to be the day Tom hired Chem Dry to clean our carpet.
Before Drew from Chem Dry arrived, my husband and I hoisted our slumbering desert rose and situated it outside our backdoor. We didn’t want to spill any soil on our freshly manicured carpet.
All of that went without a hitch. Neither of us strained our backs and Drew finished his job in less than an hour. The carpet even dried more quickly than expected.
By early afternoon, we were able to walk on the surface without wearing blue booties. By 3 p.m., we had moved all of our furniture back to where it belonged.
The blooming cycle for our prized adenium will take quite a bit longer. Rest assured, new leaves will appear this spring, prompted by warmer, longer days. Though S.R. never traveled to Arizona, I can imagine him sitting with his sleeves rolled up between farm tasks, nodding in his rocking chair as I write these words.
By June (maybe sooner) when the temperatures have reached 100-plus again here in the Valley of the Sun, this remarkable plant will produce several gorgeous double-red blooms. With it all, once again, I will have physical proof that natural beauty is constant.
Even though it feels like the rest of the world has gone mad, I draw strength from fertile ground and the knowledge that these rituals help me feel hope is always on the horizon.
In addition to writing four memoirs, I’ve been blogging for nearly four years. A few of you have joined me for every twist and turn. I feel humbled by your interest and loyalty.
In my first post (May 4, 2018), I shared ten tips for writing a meaningful memoir. I believed then (as I do today), that each of us has at least one story to tell. If you are an aspiring writer, who is searching for a little inspiration, you may find these tips helpful.
#4 on the list is especially important if you are looking to engage readers, because feelings–fear, disappointment, grief, joy, excitement, anticipation, etc.–are universal:
Write what you feel.Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.
Often when I sit down to write a new blogpost–and my fingertips touch the keyboard of my laptop–I’m uncertain what I want to write. But from the beginning of this odyssey, I’ve vowed to follow my own advice to tell and show you what Ifeelabout personal and global issues.
That has included the emotions connected to creating an authentic life as a gay man and father of two sons; recovering from a heart attack; building a new life in the Sonoran Desert with my husband; aging in a predominately youth-focused society; surviving a global pandemic; and simply observing the healing properties of animals and nature.
Even in our uncertain American society–still hamstrung politically and dealing with the ravaging effects of COVID-19–I feel fortunate to have a safe home, good health, enough food to eat, and a community of family and friends nearby.
However, I also feel a strange mix of anger, anxiety, and sadness. I attribute that to the frightening stories and images of what’s happening in Ukraine.
I won’t pretend to understand the politics of it but can imagine the tremendous pain that is occurring as Russian troops invade and thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians are threatened.
The deceptions and power-hungry antics of certain world leaders–rooted in lies and insatiable egos–are unacceptable to me. So is the growing level of American ignorance and intolerance for the truth of what history and provocative literature can teach us.
Yet we have too many “adults” in communities clamoring for the removal of books, which might help teach our children to become critical thinkers. On that note, what I feel today is the excruciating pain of what our world has become.
Rest assured, I will continue to write and voice my concerns, but I feel it’s best if I set aside my laptop for the moment. Here in the Valley of the Sun, I’m going to lace up my sneakers on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and take a hike to Papago Park.
I’m certain the sun is shining there, and the saguaro cacti are standing tall.
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