Category: Gay Life

Mighty Mosaic

When I auditioned for the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus in August 2017–six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack on the way west–we were both on the cusp of a transformation.

At sixty, I was searching for a new place to renew my love of singing (after seven years performing with Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago); the chorus was twenty-six, preparing to spread its wings and a few years away from embracing a more public gay identity: the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

On Saturday evening, October 8, I stood on stage with about fifty of my chorus mates at the Kroc Center in south Phoenix. We performed our Mosaic of Voices concert. It was our tribute to triumphant stories shared by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community–told through the power and inspiration of music.

I wore two hats for the occasion. Figuratively, I mean. I sang second tenor from the top row of the risers and realized a new creative wrinkle; I wrote the lyrics for three of the original songs we performed in the first set: Hope’s Trail, Our Second Act, and Mighty Mosaic. David E. Weck composed all of the music beautifully.

The first two were adapted from compelling, emotional, and personal stories submitted by Garry and Nico, members of the community. When I first read their stories in 2021 and began to develop lyrics, I felt it was important to honor and include many of their actual words in my lyrics. In turn, David then nurtured and shaped them into music.

The third song, Mighty Mosaic, began as a poem I wrote, specifically for the Mosaic of Voices concert. I created it to represent the rich, diverse, and sometimes-circuitous lives we lead in the LGBTQ community.

After last night–with its unveiling on stage before an appreciative audience of a few hundred–you might be inclined to call Mighty Mosaic an anthem. (It certainly felt inspiring for me to write it on June 2, 2021, and then sing it on October 8, 2021.) It celebrates who we are and what we believe. Here it is in its original form, before my words met David’s artful music.

***

Mighty Mosaic (Copyright 2021 Mark Johnson)

Morning, noon, and night, the fabric of our winding threads and uncertain spools form a fluid tapestry of brilliant and imperfect hues.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

In the heat of the day, our worn but sturdy strands lead us down rabbit holes, but–if we keep the faith–the enduring threads carry us through.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

We may travel from a foreign home or body, but when our identities emerge, they awaken our lonely spirits, they blend beautifully.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Our jagged journeys–our truth trails from the pain of stark midnight to the peace and stillness of lavender daybreak–make us mighty.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Gay, trans, straight or bi–black, brown, or white … single, attached, or married … young, old, or in between–this is our mosaic and the moment we celebrate what it means.

The pathways of our lives weave. This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Notes from a Lyricist

Nothing is certain, but it appears my debut as a lyricist will actually happen.

In January, I oozed with excitement when I told you about my new creative wrinkle. As background, in the fall of 2021 I teamed with David (another member of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) to create several original tunes for a Mosaic of Voices concert, scheduled for March 2022.

I wrote the lyrics. David composed the music. I was psyched for the debut of these pieces. Then, the concert was postponed. It was another Covid-related casualty.

Thankfully, the chorus has resurrected the program. On October 8 at the Kroc Center in Phoenix, we will perform the suite of pieces David and I created to capture the essence of original-and-triumphant stories submitted by members of the Phoenix LGBTQ community.

***

On Tuesday evening, as our chorus of seventy or so rehearsed two of the Mosaic of Voices pieces (Hope’s Trail and Our Second Act), I saw a few tears. As I sang in the back row of second tenors, I felt the gravity of emotion rise in the room with our voices.

I was reminded of the healing power of music and the important role that choral communities–first the Windy City Gay Chorus and now the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–have played in my renaissance and in the lives of so many gay men.

Especially now in our chaotic country–divided, threatened, and deconstructed–we need this joyful music, this personal support, this hopeful oasis in the desert.

Without it, many of us would feel trapped and lost.

In the Pink

August has always felt like an insufferably hot way station between the sparkling summer playground of July and autumnal possibilities of September. In short, it is my least favorite time of year.

If this is your birthday month, I apologize. But, after the scorching temperatures of July 2022 in the Northern Hemisphere, we have landed squarely in the dog days of summer. September can’t come soon enough.

Even so–nearly a month after celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday–I am in the pink. I realize this is an old-timey phrase that describes the essence of feeling fit, but I don’t care. I’m a pretty traditional guy with a love of language.

According to Investopedia, “in the pink” first appeared in the late 1500s in a version of Romeo and Juliet as a reference to an excellent example of something.

Somewhere along the way, the expression evolved into a health-and-vitality reference that my parents both used. At any rate, if the phrase was good enough for William Shakespeare to include in his classic play nearly 500 years ago, it’s good enough for me.

I’m not saying I have the vitality of fifteen-year-old me pictured here in pink in 1972. But, aside from typical muscle aches after yoga or an intense workout at the gym, a new-found intolerance for gluten, and the normal forgetfulness that comes with my new Medicare status, I generally feel well for a guy who survived a mild heart attack five years ago.

And I still have a thick head of hair, though it no longer falls in my face. At this stage, I wear it short. Often under a hat to please my dermatologist and protect my fair skin from the intense rays of the Sonoran sun.

I also remember the ribbing I received from classmates for wearing this pink shirt (and other closely related pastels) back in the 60s and 70s.

At that moment in time, I wish the current much-older-and-wiser Mark Johnson could have magically appeared through an adjacent door to counsel fifteen-year-old me.

In my pink fantasy, he would simply have said …

“Never hide. Stand tall. Forget the haters. Be proud of who you are. Wear whatever colors you want. One day you will find your way. You will stand on stage. You will sing songs. The pain of the past will fade. You will raise two sons and live your own definition of masculinity. You will meet a man, fall in love, and marry him one day. The two of you will move west and create a quieter life. You will choose to wear pink again and again–and do it in style. You will survive. You will discover an open, authentic life. You will write books. You will tell stories. You will even write lyrics in your sixties. You will rise above the fray.”

Never Too Late

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.

Feels Like Flying: The Day After

Imagine a welcoming, intimate, theatrical space where people of various stripes, orientations and political persuasions gathered for a few hours — twice in one weekend — to celebrate, sing, dance, clap, laugh, and cry in cool comfort away from the desert heat.

How is that possible in 2022? Glee, Broadway, and Disney tunes — delivered spectacularly by the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and a duo of delicious drag queens — were the musical culprits.

It happened June 4 and 5 at the gorgeous and resonant Tempe Center for the Arts before two raucous and appreciative audiences.

Of course, I’m biased. If you follow my blog or have read my latest book, you know I sing second tenor with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

Over the past several months, about forty of us — led by artistic director Marc and principal accompanist Darlene — prepared diligently for our Homecoming performances, celebrating the chorus’ 30th anniversary.

In addition to rehearsing in person regularly and navigating the relentless physical and mental challenges of Covid, we listened to our audio files at home.

We practiced in our homes and in our cars. Then, we did it all over again. The final week of preparation is a bit hellish, but in the words of Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive. I’ve learned to pace myself.

That’s what it takes to memorize a gleeful mash-up of music. Not to mention the choralography and costuming. (“There were costumes?” you ask. Please … we’re talking about a gay chorus!)

Standing on the stage Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, I felt a myriad of emotions as I channeled Madonna in my red choir robe. Exhilaration and relief reigned during my Like a Prayer solo ….

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Knowing my husband Tom, older son Nick, and an entourage of faithful friends were in the audience spurred me on. Plus, I didn’t want to disappoint my friends on stage. They’ve all become important to me.

I shudder when I think of what Tom and I endured nearly five years ago … surviving my heart attack and our move across country. What pulled us through?

It’s been our resiliency and the personal connections we’ve made. With those in the chorus, kind neighbors, gentle yoga with like-minded souls on Friday mornings, endless work out sessions with friends at Club SAR, and a fun collection of experiences with other Arizona writers, readers, artists, and film lovers. They all purchased tickets for the Homecoming concerts.

I feel so thankful. I feel so much love.

Occasionally, someone will ask me why I sing with a gay chorus. Certainly, it is about the music. But it goes much deeper for me and for many of the men of all ages who I perform with.

In this crazy world, we all need to feel safe. To find a place that feels like home. To be who we are. To share our gifts. To feel valued and loved. To push beyond our comfort zones. To go after that next solo or simply be content to be appreciated as one of many voices.

Whatever the case, the members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus provide that encouragement and support for each other. On that note, there is one behind-the-scenes moment I need to share from my concert weekend.

One of our five Like a Prayer soloists missed the entire weekend of performances due to his partner’s sudden illness. Naturally, he was deeply disappointed. We all missed him.

About ninety minutes before our Sunday concert, as we began to warm our voices, I captured this photo and sent it to him. This was my vantage point of the theatre from the top riser for most of the weekend.

It was my way of telling Brad …

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

Like Flying

“I have no choice. I hear your voice. Feels like flying.”

If you love Madonna or remember who she is–please say you do–these eleven words from Like a Prayer, her 1989 pop hit, may prompt your musical heart to soar.

On June 4 and 5 at the Tempe Center for the Arts, these lyrics also will comprise my solo in the Homecoming concert with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus.

I’m a lifelong lover of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and an ardent Arizona admirer of a majestic bald eagle that likes to pose atop a telephone pole along Hayden Road near Chapparal Park in Scottsdale every May.

Still, I don’t know what it feels like to actually fly without the aid of an aircraft.

No matter. Singing has always felt like flying–or what I imagine it to be–with the wind lifting me up as I spread my wings and raise my voice. Particularly the sensation of standing on a stage and harmonizing with a chorus of like-minded, artistic-and-musical souls.

The last time I sang a solo on stage was 1979. I was a senior at the University of Missouri and performed On and On (the way-too-precious-sounding Stephen Bishop tune) with a vocal jazz ensemble of fresh-scrubbed faces and silky-smooth voices. We called ourselves The Singsations. (I know. It was pretty corny.)

Anyway, if you’re a Baby Boomer, you know the lyrics from Bishop’s 1976 song …“Down in Jamaica, they got lots of pretty women. Steal your money, then they break your heart …”

At that point, pretending to be a straight man, I wasn’t in touch with my true orientation. It would be June 2010–long after the birth of my two sons and a failed first marriage–before I would discover the safe haven and friendship of the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago.

But from 2010 to 2017, I never auditioned for a solo with Windy City. I was content to be a voice among voices.

In 2022–in the autumn of my life a month before my sixty-fifth birthday, in a city where it feels like summer lasts forever–I will be singing my next solo. I’ll be surrounded by a community of about forty gay friends.

As you might imagine I’m excited and a little nervous … waiting to take the stage on June 4 and 5 with more than a dozen friends and family in the audience.

I know I will savor every note of the experience. No doubt, it will feel like flying.

In May 2021, I captured this photo of a bald eagle on stage along Hayden Road in Scottsdale, Arizona. Last Sunday, as Tom and I walked together, this magnificent creature reappeared and dazzled us by swooping down to the lake below to secure a fish for breakfast in his or her talons.

FREE Through Friday

Need a warm escape? Download my latest book–FREE–through February 25.

Set against the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape, it’s an anthology of whimsical and serious stories about a little bit of everything: hot rods, high points, climbing up, growing old, coming out, pruning trees, eavesdropping cacti, pool rules, sand dollars, shrinking men, tiny lizards, literary life, fanciful flights, fresh lemons, pandemic truths, desert fantasies, and much more.

Please post your review online. It will mean a lot to this independent writer.

Pocatello Moments

Nearly six months ago, Tom and I were driving south through the plains of Idaho after a pleasant visit with friends in Bozeman, Montana.

A green road sign told us we were approaching the town of Pocatello. Late on the morning of June 28, we pulled off the road to explore. I wanted to see a place I had never been, though–in an alternative universe–it might have become my world. Let me explain.

In the early 1970s, Mom was a staffing specialist for the Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis. One day she came home from work (she was the bread winner in our family after Dad suffered a heart attack) to tell us her job might be transferred to Pocatello, Idaho. If so, we might be moving west.

As it turns out, we didn’t come close to moving to Pocatello. We stayed in St. Louis. But, as a teenager, I believed for a few months that an Idaho existence was a real possibility; that we would leave; that I would need to make new friends in an unfamiliar, remote state. That mindset was my motivation for wanting to examine Pocatello with my husband fifty years later.

For the next few hours, Tom and I roamed the streets of Pocatello. We took photos outside the local high school, paused at the site of the Chief movie theater (it burned in 1993), inquired about the repurposed status of the Hotel Yellowstone, and gazed through the windows of an abandoned Greyhound bus depot.

In front of a thrift store with a rainbow flag in the window, we had the nerve to stop two young men (one was wearing a Schitt’s Creek T-shirt) to ask them what it was like to be gay and grow up in Pocatello. They hesitated for a moment but discovered Tom and I … a couple and a couple of writers … had no ulterior motives. We simply wanted to know what it was like to live there; I was mining future story ideas.

So, they obliged. They told us they had carved out decent lives, gone to a local college, and made friends in their community, though–they confessed–it was tough being openly gay in predominantly Mormon Idaho and Utah. We thanked them for stopping to say hello and sharing their insights. We wished them well and said goodbye.

Before Tom and I walked back to our rented SUV to continue on our journey, we made a final stop in a local art gallery. That’s where I spotted a speckled-blue glazed mug, made by a local potter. It bears the shape of the state of Idaho. I couldn’t leave without buying it. I needed a physical souvenir of the spontaneous moments Tom and I shared in a town that might have been mine, but never was.

Since that unforeseen experience in June, I have consumed dozens of cups of coffee and tea from my Idaho mug–many while writing the next blog post or poem. In a sense, the sight of the mug stirs my creativity, especially when I need a jolt.

As Christmas approaches and 2021 draws to a close, this artful mug reminds me how important it is for all of us–writers or not–to leave the highway of life from time to time. To keep our minds open to diverse people and unfamiliar worlds. To explore the “what ifs” that keep us wondering where the next story will come from. To seize the Pocatello moments when they appear and imagine the possibilities of what they may inspire in 2022 and beyond.

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!

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.