Category: Creative nonfiction

Important Things to Say

It is one of my earliest vivid memories. I was standing alone in June 1962. Outside the west side of my childhood home in Affton. Looking north toward the street. Wearing my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. One month shy of my fifth birthday. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom brick ranch in south suburban St. Louis, Missouri appeared nearly identical to two dozen others on South Yorkshire Drive. With one exception. Ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb and droppings that stained our driveway.

At that moment, a clear and welcome thought jumped unannounced to the forefront of my brain and lingered for a few minutes. It swirled through my consciousness.

“I am also different. I have important things to say.”

As I look back at that memory, I realize that on some level I must have known I was gay. Not the same as most of the rest of the boys. Maybe even special. It was an intuition. A gut hunch without empirical data.

I was a shy child. I stayed out of trouble mostly. I didn’t rock the boat. I obeyed my parents. Later, I listened to my teachers and dodged bullies in middle school halls. I had lots of fears and creative ideas. Unfortunately, I never voiced many of them.

Now–nearly sixty years later–the voice that was never fully realized in my developing years has found a forum of its own. This is my two hundredth blog entry since launching my site in May 2018. For you who follow me frequently–especially the handful who comment regularly–thank you for taking the time out of your busy life to read what I write.

Recently, the pace of my postings has slowed so I can devote my attentions to another creative endeavor. I am currently finalizing a collection of essays and fantasies about my life in Arizona. My goal is to send these to my editor in November and publish my fourth book early in 2021. Rest assured, I will keep you posted on the delivery date of my newest arrival.

I suppose my writing commitment (in blog and book form) is my way of making up for lost time. When I sit before my laptop, spin my stories, enter my words, and press the “publish” button, I feel as if on some level I am speaking for that “different” little child who stood on his St. Louis driveway and pondered the world’s possibilities and problems.

I keep writing because he and I have important things to say.

Fall Colors

Back in March, when news of the pandemic began to assault our senses, Tom and I agreed we wanted to introduce a splash of color into our home. To bring a fresh bunch of store-bought flowers into our haven each week. To ease the pain of 2020 by creating our own bouquet of happiness.

Now that October is with us, I’ve been craving fall colors. Though I smile every time I see the scarlet bougainvillea blooms swaying in a gentle breeze outside our back door, we don’t enjoy crisp apple-picking days in the Sonoran Desert or a traditional array of autumn leaves.

This week we brought home burnt orange roses to ogle over. As I freed them from the plastic wrap, the interior designer in me recommended placing them in my mother’s canary yellow Fiesta pitcher from the 1940s.

Full disclosure. In the past week, I also have bought and consumed organic pumpkin spiced applesauce, transferred two decorative harvest dinner plates (Mom also left those behind) from the hutch in our sun room to our kitchen cabinet, positioned our plastic jack-o-lantern on top of our living room bookshelf, and rescued two orange-black-and-white, witchy-and-batty cupcake dish towels from the cupboard.

After all, it’s October. Even if it is 2020, we have to manufacturer our own of version autumnal happiness and humor our Halloween hankerings. Our lives are more than COVID-19 results and election prognostications. We must maintain some sense of stability and go on living.

Rain

On the first morning of autumn, September’s long-forgotten-and-seldom-seen sister dropped in from beyond the buttes.

Unreliable rain interrupted an eight o’clock swim. She had ghosted us all summer. Promised her return. Teased us with phantom forecasts.

She stayed for ten minutes. Long enough to soothe freckled shoulders, heal parched souls, and cast a creosote cocktail over the palms.

Her intoxicating personality was the change we needed to silence the sameness. To swim and dance again under the clouds of our desert dreams.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

Birdland 2020

Zumra_082220

When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.

He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.

“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.

Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.

Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.

The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.

Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a  passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.

Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.

All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.

While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.

Kiki_082220

 

Almost as If

ValleyHo2_081720

Personal experience tells me that the pressure and immediacy of a frightful, life-changing moment–for instance, a mild heart attack accompanied by breathlessness and radiating left shoulder pain while traveling cross country–can make it virtually impossible to imagine a longer view, a brighter sky, an optimistic outcome.

But with the passage of three years and one month (living inside a 2017-to-2020 cradle of colluding Russian-nesting-doll years, arguably the most tumultuous and troublesome period in American history since the Civil War), I find myself crossing a metaphorical threshold into a more promising personal dimension without an obstruction in the foreground.

This realization flooded my sixty-three-year old brain and body on August 18, 2020 as I scribbled sentences on the lined pages of my emerald-colored spiral notebook. The inspiration for my ramblings was prompted by a visit with Dr. B, my cardiologist, the day before.

***

August 17 began swimmingly. Forty laps alongside Tom in our condo pool, followed closely by a thirty-minute session (yoga for writers with Adriene on YouTube) in front of our flat-screen TV. The motion and stretching were successful in quieting my mind before an 11:10 a.m. appointment with Dr. B.

At 10:30, I stepped out on my own in my flip flops into one-hundred-degree heat. Opened the driver’s side to our indigo Sonata, started the engine, and tapped the windshield wipers to remove a thin layer of grit from a dust storm the night before.

It was a short and simple journey into Old Town Scottsdale, but one I’d stewed over since a August 5 echocardiogram orchestrated by Laney on the other side of the Valley of the Sun. It was her job to test the condition and pumping capability of my heart. Glub glub … glub glub … glub glub.

Some of the sting surrounding this follow-up appointment had already subsided on August 10 or 11, because a nurse in my doctor’s office emailed saying they had uncovered “no emergent concerns” from the procedure. Dr. B would discuss my course of care moving forward at a August 17 consultation.

Still, like any once-burned patient with a history of heart disease or inquisitive journalist digging for the full scoop, I wondered if there were more variables they weren’t ready to share with me. More I needed to fret over. The phrase “course of care” left too much room–too many what ifs–for my unbridled imagination and anxiety.

Like many other moments in life, the hardest part was waiting.

***

Once I arrived at the three-story office building, I parked facing east, slid our silver sunshade across the windshield, climbed three flights of stairs in an outdoor atrium rather than trusting a slow elevator, checked in at the front desk of Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd,, and waited to be summoned.

“120/80 … couldn’t be more normal,” Dr. B’s nurse checked and confided my blood pressure, once I was situated in a straight-backed chair. As she left me alone in the room, I thought of Tom and all we had endured and accomplished in the previous thirty-seven months together.

Selling our home in Illinois. Saying goodbye to family, friends and neighbors. Moving ourselves and our essential possessions seventeen hundred miles west. Scurrying into the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday. Resuming our journey four days later with the help of a capable medical team in the city where I was born.

Buying new furniture for the living room of our Arizona condo. Traveling to Ireland and feeling the air rush through my hair on an open-air Dublin bus. Helping Nick recover from a serious knee injury on a basketball court. Cultivating new friendships in Arizona.

Finding new creative outlets and avenues to sing, write and screen our favorite movies. Climbing to the top of a church in Munich, Germany to behold Bavaria without a worry. Gazing out the window of a Vienna cafe and soaking up the baroque splendor inside The Ring.

Bonding with cardiologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists. Standing between my thirty-something sons at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library right before COVID-19 shuttered the world. Surviving the chaos and fear of a global pandemic and a misguided presidency. Doing our best to stay connected to family and friends. Escaping to the mountains of Flagstaff to breathe the pine-scented air.

All of it, and the memory of my mother and father (both long gone, but never far away) flashed through my mind’s eye in a five-minute window as I stared at the blue and green tiles in an innocuous space waiting for Dr. B.

After he knocked and entered, he delivered the news I had waited for. More than I  hoped for actually. Certainly, more than I imagined. He glanced at the July 2017 images from St. Louis and compared them with those of August 2020 in Scottsdale. He told me the Arizona echocardiogram showed my heart is functioning normally.

Though both of us wore masks, I’m sure he could see the amazement and joy in my eyes when he said, “It’s almost as if you never had a heart attack … I don’t need to see you until another year passes, unless something comes up.”

***

As I left Dr. B’s office, relief flooded my body. I texted the news to Tom and told him I was on my way home. We would celebrate with a mini-staycation at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, a vintage mid-century, sun-drenched resort flecked in tangerine and aqua. As good fortune would have it, August 17 was the day we met in 1996.

For two days and nights, we were desert rats living the high life. It was almost as if none of the trauma of three years before had happened. But we knew it had. Now we could put it further behind us in the distance of the palms in the Grand Canyon State.

All of us hope for a longer view, a lengthier life with greater possibilities. But it’s out of our control. The best we can do is love more. Hate less. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Listen to the advice of our doctors. Be grateful for today. Endure the heat of a desert day. Embrace the twilight of our fading hours. Deliberate over dazzling sunsets.

Enjoy the luscious fruits of our lives as they appear without ever really knowing what tomorrow will bring.

 

Nine Years Ago in Italy

It’s been a while since I’ve boarded my dusty desert time machine. I figure we can all use a summer holiday escape. Away from daily reports of emerging COVID-19 hot spots, social unrest, and the grind of our shrunken stay-at-home lives.

Join me as I travel back nine years to late July 2011. When our resourceful guide and friend Yvette (a Canadian living in Tunisia), led six men (five Americans and one Canadian) on an eleven-day, Outgoing Adventures tour of Italy.

It was my first European odyssey. Six years before our 2017 Ireland immersion. Eight before Tom and I made a delicious 2019 dash through Germany and Austria.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Italy. The architecture, ancient history, hum and handsome men of Rome. The mystery and magic of Siena.

The countrysides and cooking of Tuscany. The alleys and alabaster of Volterra. The cliffs and colors of Cinque Terra. The style and silk of Florence.

Most of all, the enduring exuberance of the Italian people we met all along the way … lovers of art, pasta, wine, afternoon strolls and evening gelato.

Consider this my tribute to beloved Italy. A splendid sampler of nine representative images I captured that–nine years later–continue to feed my creative consciousness, spirit of adventure, and wonder about a nameless Florentine boy with a blue umbrella who followed his mother’s red shoes.

 

A Ray of Hope in An Awful Year

SR Ferrell diary entry … July 2, 1964 … from Huntersville, North Carolina.

I plowed corn in Bottoms until noon. We had showers of rain about 12:30 and I did not plow any this afternoon. I set out my blueberry plants this afternoon. President Johnson signed the “Civil Rights Law” into law today. Partly cloudy. Hot. I went to Charlie Gibson’s and got some tomatoes. 69 degrees (Low). 87 degrees (High).

***

My guest blogger is SR Ferrell. My maternal grandfather (Sherrell Richardson Ferrell was his full name) was a mountain of a man, devoted farmer and prolific writer. He left behind more than fifty years of simple-but-occasionally-profound diary accounts. He and they became central characters in From Fertile Ground, the story of my grief and quest to rediscover my southern roots.

About the same time SR (a staunch southern Republican) was plowing corn in North Carolina, LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson, a storied southern Democrat) was signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The legislation outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or natural origin.

I’m grateful for this history and what we can learn from it. Especially in 2020. So far, it’s been a frantic, frail and frenetic year. Defined by the immediacy of terrible tweets that take precedence in American society over the truth and track record of yesterday. It’s important that we pause for a moment to give the longitudinal threads in our lives their proper respect and attention.

History has shown LBJ was responsible for escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On the other hand, with a stroke of his pen, the 36th president also proved to have a positive impact on domestic policy. The Civil Rights Act prohibits unequal applications in voter registration, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations.

Certainly, our country hasn’t always followed the rule and spirit of this law. If it had, we wouldn’t now face a long painful road ahead. Sifting through the wreckage of racism. Building a society that actively demonstrates black lives matter.

Unrelated to the prejudices of skin color, today in a surprising 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of LGBTQ workers. Citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, nearly fifty-six years after LBJ signed the law, SCOTUS ruled that no one can be fired from their job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The SCOTUS decision was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch (a conservative appointed by Donald Trump), who said the “message” of the law is “simple and momentous: an individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.”

In this case at least, equality and history win out. This is a ray of hope in an awful year.

Perhaps it’s also a present from the past to the present from a president (born in Stonewall, Texas, ironically) hundreds of miles from the Stonewall Inn uprising of New York that defined the beginning of the LGBTQ movement in June 1969 … less than six months after LBJ left the White House.

Truly July 2, 1964 was a mighty day for SR, LBJ and all Americans. … and, with the Supreme Court’s decision today, despite our current troubles, we’ve taken a step in the right direction toward civil rights supported at the federal level.

 

 

 

Three Junes Ago

MountProspectHome_June2017

What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

The Golden Hour

GoldenHour_June2020

Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.