Category: Essays

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Echo

Like many of you, I feel my life has shrunk over the past six months. Collateral damage of this pandemic. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this, but now it is resonating with a new spin.

There was a period yesterday afternoon when the sadness of all the personal losses and societal disruption (physical, social and psychological … exacerbated by the leadership vacuum in this country) brought me to tears.

Today I’m feeling better. Just typing these words helps. Writing and sharing my thoughts always seems to alleviate the pain. Yet, strangely, I have to constantly remind myself of this need to bring voice to my observations and worries.

I’ve been concerned about losing my voice … literally and figuratively. I’m not singing right now. I’m hoping that will change in the fall again with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. But it’s too soon to say. The wait may be longer. Much longer.

I also see what our current administration has attempted to do over the past three-plus years to muffle our voices, discredit the media and diminish our first amendment rights.

This isn’t the America I grew up in. But this is where we are now. Ugly. Divided. Fighting for our lives and our democratic existence. I can only hope there are enough of us outraged citizens, who will vote for a change in the White House in November.

Even in all the turmoil, Tom and I are managing to get by here in our Arizona community. We walk and swim before the heat rolls in. We wear our masks. We go out sparingly. To the store. To Walgreens for our prescriptions. I went to the Scottsdale library yesterday for a change of scenery.

I thought my mini field trip would lift my spirits, but when I saw all three of my books on the Local Author shelf it left me feeling sad and disconnected, because I remembered standing in front of my books at the Local Author Book Sale in February.

When life was different. When people could converse and share ideas in person. Smile. Shake hands. Hug even. I suspect it will be months (years?) before that will happen again.

In our shrunken sphere of influence, there is one other place Tom and I frequent. Echo Coffee, an independent coffee shop in south Scottsdale.

It makes us happy to go to Echo for carry out. We love their coffee, ice tea and delicious chocolate chip scones and feel good about supporting this local business.

We feel a personal connection to the place, because our friend Rob is the owner. He bought Echo in December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic descended on all of us.

Tom and I have watched as Rob has gallantly and adeptly adjusted on the fly to keep his business afloat and open, while refashioning the feel of the place to reflect his personality and values.

Rob donates one percent of all sales to an Echo Grant program that awards “ambitious and incredible creators the funding they need” … helping the artists and musicians in our community sustain themselves and thrive.

The sound of Echo is a quiet, comfortable, unobtrusive vibe … a coffee shop inspiring art, compassion and humanity … where local students, artists, musicians, readers, writers and caring citizens go for a cup of Joe, to reconnect with themselves, or chat with the friendly staff … even if it needs to be behind masks and at greater distances than before.

This morning Tom and I drove to Echo. We bought a few drinks for take-out. From behind our respective masks, we exchanged pleasantries with Lydia and Kallie. They were working the counter.

Previously, Rob told me he liked my writing. So, I told him I wanted to donate a few of my books to Echo. I handed Lydia a bag containing three of them, which she immediately added to the Echo bookshelf.

Though the tables at Echo are fewer now and spread out at more comfortable distances, customers can still pull a book from Rob’s shelf and read a chapter or two if they choose as they sip their coffee on a weary Wednesday or sunny Saturday.

For Tom and me, visiting Echo (as well as checking on Rob and his team) gives us an added purpose to our shrinking lives. Plus there is the satisfaction of knowing we are supporting a business we believe in, helping a friend in need, adding to the local artistic flavor of our community, and leaving an impression that will echo in a place we love.

The Long Arc of Life

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The world is full of complicated and thorny problems. Perhaps it’s fitting that on Father’s Day Tom and I bought and brought home our own private potful–a tiny saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea)–from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Despite their prickly nature and my aversion to being stabbed by sharp objects, in my first three years of Arizona residency, I’ve come to feel comfort from the surrounding saguaro cacti. If you follow my blog, you know that. I’ve posted photos and a few poems about this fatherly tree-like species that is native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico.

Saguaros grow slowly. Our little guy … let’s call him Sammy Saguaro … stands no more than six inches tall, yet he’s probably at least ten or fifteen years old. They can grow to be forty to sixty feet in height and live one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred years.

Of course, I’ll never see Sammy grow into that stature, but I’m happy to watch him develop slowly. I like the idea of his anticipated longevity. Especially in this age of COVID-19, it’s good to remind ourselves of the long arc of life … where we were, how far we’ve come, how many setbacks we’ve endured, how far we hope to grow in the future.

Like in the 1990s, when my mother would measure the heights of Nick and Kirk against the side of her St. Louis pantry door when we visited from Chicago. She knew her grandsons would grow and go places. She wanted to mark their progress, see the smiles on their faces when they saw how far they’d advanced since the previous pencil marking. Since the previous visit. So did I.

I still feel that way about my sons. Even though they are now in their thirties and fully grown physically, I can see them slowly expanding their reach. Stretching toward the sky in an uncertain world a little at a time.

Each time I talk with one of them over the phone, I realize how far they have come. How far they have to go. That’s what it means to be a father. That’s also why it’s important that Sammy is standing outside our back door.

In this vein of remembering and marking growth, in spite of the pain of 2020, I’m reminded of an historic moment that occurred five years ago. This is what I wrote in From Fertile Ground on June 29, 2015 from Mount Prospect, Illinois.

In the scheme of things, it marked a remarkable, sharp, positive turn in our nation’s complicated history. One I’ll never forget. One I hope is never rescinded.

***

It’s a cool and wet June morning. In our front yard, the sparrows are fighting for position to pluck seeds from the perch of our bird feeder, dangling from a branch of our river birch. On our deck in the back, the first orange blossom of the summer has appeared and opened on our hibiscus tree. More color, more beauty, more promise.

I’ve been feeling more joyful since last Friday when the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples can now be married in all fifty states. This is a civil rights triumph of monumental proportions. For gay people everywhere in the United States–and for future generations who will be born into a more open society–there is now the same equal opportunity to marry the person they love.

The day after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, our friends Greg and Dan were married in Chicago. They had planned their marriage ceremony months ago to coincide with their twenty-fifth anniversary of when they became a couple. It was a boat ride on Lake Michigan with family and close friends.

Tom and I held hands on the top deck of the boat as we listened to them exchange their vows on a windswept-slightly cool but sunny Chicago afternoon. There were happy tears and raucous cheers for Greg and Dan, of course. It was their day and a long time in coming. But it was also our day to mark the occasion of a sharp positive turn in our nation’s complicated history.

Perhaps President Barack Obama best captured the spirit of this giant step forward immediately after the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, he said:

This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are treated equal, we are all more free.

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.