Category: Survival

July 1955: More Fertile Ground

This season of triple digits in Arizona–followed by a few days of overdue, soaking monsoon rains–is the perfect time to rummage indoors through personal, vintage photos.

The best of them, like peering into the Grand Canyon, leave me with a mix of joy and insignificance. They tell stories about humanity before I entered the picture.

I’m fortunate to have accumulated photographic treasures from both sides of my family. Some of them, tattered and faded, date back to the early 1900s.

I don’t recall seeing this image from July 1955 before. I imagine one of my maternal grandparents captured it on their Huntersville, North Carolina farm. Sixty-six years later, I stumbled across it in a forgotten album. Today, on July 26, 2021, it is speaking loudly through the sepia tone.

If she were alive, the woman on the left (my mother, Helen Ferrell Johnson) would be celebrating her ninety-eighth birthday today. In 1955, she held my sister Diane on her lap and celebrated her thirty-second birthday with her sister Frances (cradling her first born, Michael) and brother Jim by her side in her original home state.

Mom has been gone since 2013. Grief has taught me there will be days like today when I miss her smile, wisdom, perspective and resolve. Fortunately, thanks to the passage of time, the abyss of grief–the Grand Canyon of loss–subsided in 2015 as I wrote.

When you love someone, grief is the price you pay. It is everlasting, sometimes surprising, but often predictable. Photos, birthdays, anniversaries, and specific songs (I’ll Be Seeing You sung by Peggy Lee) provide the cues.

What makes this photo a rare find is that I have just a few images of my mother and her adult siblings together. Helen left North Carolina right after World War II to begin a new life in a bigger city … St. Louis, Missouri … where she and Dad met, married, settled, raised Diane and me, and discovered their share of happy, challenging, and unbearable moments together.

Jim and Frances stayed to build their lives in the Tar Heel State. They were teenagers on the farm in the late 40s. In the 50s, Jim and Frances (born in 1930 and 1932 respectively) left the nest, but returned frequently to this front porch that faced west. They met and married partners, traveled a few miles down the road to raise their families, and remained near their parents.

What I love most about this photo is the sense of possibilities and optimism in the eyes of Helen, Frances, and Jim. The wear and worry of life hadn’t yet entered the picture. By the mid 60s, Helen had two children. Frances had three. Jim had two. My grandparents loved all seven of us grandchildren. We now lead disparate lives.

Mom loved her brother. He was a friendly, handsome man, who loved to fish, hunt, drink beer, and smoke cigarettes. Unfortunately, the harsh realities and complexities of life had a way of catching up with Jim. In 1987, he died of lung cancer at age fifty-six. When she learned of Jim’s passing, it frightened her. Mom saw his demise as a harbinger of her own mortality. She retired immediately after returning from his funeral.

Frances still lives in North Carolina. She is the most significant personal connection I have to my southern roots. I spoke with her a few months ago. She isn’t the spitfire she once was, but is content with her husband in their Davidson, North Carolina home.

Like all of us who remain, Frances is thankful to have survived the pandemic. She is looking forward to her ninetieth birthday, which she will celebrate January 1, 2022. In 2015, two years after Mom died, I traveled south to see Frances. At that time, we needed to see and hug each other to escape the throes of grief.

My quest to rediscover my southern family and find comfort with Frances ultimately became fodder for From Fertile Ground, my first book. It’s the story of my journey and grief told in part through the writings my grandfather and mother left behind. If you’ve lost someone close recently and are living with the fog of grief, I hope you’ll pick up a copy of my book. Reading it may soothe you.

With each passing year, I continue to find more fertile ground from the photos and writings my mother and father left behind. Reexamining them and rediscovering their importance reactivates the love I feel for imperfect–yet beloved–family members. They shaped my past and the memories of them still inform my present.

Desert Friendships and Roses

If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.

Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.

My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.

I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.

Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.

Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.

Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.

As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.

No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.

From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.

Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.

The Midpoint and More

The midpoint of 2021 finds Tom and I spending the final night of our ten-day road trip in Page, Arizona. Tucked just inside the northern border of the Grand Canyon State, Page is home to Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, red rocks, and painted vistas that roll and repeat across distant horizons.

By the time we step through the door of our Scottsdale condo tomorrow afternoon, we will have driven nearly 2,500 miles … Arizona to Utah to Idaho to Montana and back again.

Along the way, we will have captured hundreds of photos; discovered a delectable German bakery (Forschers) in Orderville, Utah, where we consumed apple and cherry pockets; walked along the greenbelt and roaring rapids of the Snake River in Idaho Falls; marveled at our first live theatrical performance since the pandemic (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream) in Bozeman where we huddled with old and new friends on a blanket; and hiked around hairpin curves at magnificent Bryce Canyon National Park as a storm rumbled in the western sky.

Even with all of that (and much more I won’t detail here), the sweetest realization is conquering the twists and turns of life on a long road trip again. It is the first time Tom and I have ventured out to the highways and byways since I suffered a mild heart attack in 2017 in St. Louis on our shared sixtieth birthday on the way to our new home in Scottsdale.

Thankfully, this 2021 swing through the western states puts greater distance between the trauma of the past and the poignancy of the present. That brings me to the midpoint of 2021, where–tonight–the possibilities of post-pandemic, vaccinated life feel as endless as the Arizona horizon.

Utah and Idaho

Traveling through the West, it is the beauty, desolation, and vastness that inspire me most. The sky and geography of Utah and Idaho collude to create soaring, lasting impressions. They seduce me, whispering ancient tales and promising a blur of stories of high plains, dusty buttes, painted plateaus, river rapids, and arid summer days.

Coronaville

The COVID-19 traumas that spun endlessly in 2020 and early 2021 have spawned a mountain of stories bursting with pain and uncertainty. But rays of clarity and creativity have begun to emerge as we try to make sense of the pandemic that will forever shape those of us who survived it.

I devoted part of my latest book to Coronaville–that crazy town we still live in–because I think it’s important to remember the fear and examine it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. What a shame it would be if we didn’t learn from the madness this plague has perpetrated. Here is a sampling of what I wrote one year ago this week:

***

Monday, June 15, 2020 began with congestion in my chest, mild nausea, and an occasional headache. I did not have a temperature, sore throat, or experience a loss of sense of smell or taste that may accompany the dreaded virus.

Nonetheless, I was worried enough to call my doctor, who prescribed a chest x-ray at a nearby diagnostic center that afternoon and a COVID-19 test the next morning at an HonorHealth urgent care facility.

Fortunately, my chest x-ray came back normal. There was no sign of pneumonia or any abnormalities. More than likely, I was dealing with a sinus condition or allergy to an air-borne culprit than the dreaded COVID-19. But still I waited. I was afraid the other shoe might drop.

On Tuesday, I imagined the desert dust from an adjacent construction site–fumes from our recent bedroom painting project or particles I had ingested from the smoke of a wildfire that raged in the hills sixty miles northeast of us–could be the problem. But I worried about the worst as Tom and I drove to Mesa for the swab test at 11 a.m.

***

To read the rest of the story (and all thirty-nine essays set against the warm and rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert) click on the link below and purchase a copy of my book in paperback or Kindle.

Retooling My Engine

I’ve been feeling murky lately–grumpy too. It’s been one of those uncertain periods in life. We all have them.

Two weeks ago, the engine in our nine-year-old Sonata seized. It went kaput as Tom was returning from the gym, initiating a domino effect of frustrating phone calls and texts, AAA tows, car rentals, dealer discussions, loaner agreements, missed connections, and moving deadlines.

Fortunately, Tom is okay and our car is still under warranty … barely. (Ten years or 100,000 miles.) Our odometer read 98,500 when everything shut down. The engine was replaced and paid for by Hyundai. We picked up our rejuvenated car yesterday. It’s now running smoothly.

Despite the relatively fortunate personal and financial outcome, my patience has worn thin. My creativity is scattered. It’s as if a Sonoran wind blew in, swept my disparate ideas (literal and figurative scraps of paper on my desk) into the sky, and scorched them into a cloud of embers, precipitated by a drought-induced Arizona fire. (Yes, it’s fire season here again.)

As a result, my writing schedule is off. My temper is short. The temperature outside is rising fast in the Phoenix area (110 degrees here we come).

Oh, book sales have fallen off the map. Do people read anymore? This is one of those moments when I need to remind myself of the joy I felt in March when I was basking in the publishing afterglow (not the flames of a hillside fire) of reading passages from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree before a group of thirty-five friends and neighbors.

Through it all, I’m aware I am living in the undefined space between writing projects. If you are also a writer, you know what that feels like. It feels like crap. Why? Because writing (for us, at least) serves as a personal compass, a guiding light, an organizing principle that keeps us feeling passionate, centered, connected, relevant, and whole.

Now that I’ve had a chance to whine a little, I should also tell you that a new possible creative project has begun to surface. It may materialize this fall. At this point, I don’t want to jinx it by describing it any further.

Instead, I’m better served by resting my brain a little, praying for monsoon rains in Arizona, and focusing on a much-needed, ten-day vacation/road trip to and from Montana, which Tom and I will embark on in a few weeks.

Of course, we couldn’t go anywhere a year ago. But, because we are fully vaccinated, we’ll be able to explore and absorb the majestic scenery of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho with a clear conscience and visit friends in Bozeman, Montana.

What more could I ask for to retool my engine?

Standing Guard

On May 27, 2021, I captured this majestic image of a bald eagle spreading its wings, perched atop a telephone pole, gazing east, standing guard along Hayden Road near my home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

This is my domain, though at times I barely recognize the land that met the sky on the wings of my ancestors. Now it is divided into parcels and corridors of parched earth and concrete that channel swirling desert winds.

I crave missing monsoon rains. I grieve for the fallen in war and peace. I pause to observe the pain, pestilence, and progress. I wince over apathy and shortsightedness. I am blind to none of it.

Call me a scavenger or opportunist if you will. I am imperfect like you. I am a survivor, a symbol of what is right and wrong. I was nearly gone and forgotten. Now I am standing guard over the mystery and mayhem that is my home.

Thank You, Science

Like this image, life has been more than a little blurry for the past fifteen months. I have tried to keep smiling, but the outrageous number of deaths due to COVID-19 (more than 580,000 in the United States at this point), endless Zoom interactions, mind-numbing-worry-filled hours, and angst-ridden social and political moments have made it difficult at times.

Add in the daily masked encounters in contact-free zones to protect ourselves. There have been too many of those to enumerate, but through 2020 and the first four months of 2021 I never questioned the need to wear a face covering, though it certainly created an emotional barrier to contend with.

What would you have said if I told you this on January 20, 2021, (the day Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office)?

“By the middle of May more than 47 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 37 percent of all Americans (more than 120 million including my husband and me) will be fully vaccinated. Oh, and CDC masking guidelines will be substantially relaxed as a result of the greater numbers of protected citizens. For instance, if you live in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I do, you will be free to exercise in a community gym without wearing a mask on May 15.”

You probably would have responded like this:

“You’re crazy, Johnson!! Stop building my hopes and spreading unrealistic half-glass-full-but-dreamy conspiracy theories.”

But I’m not crazy. Think about what we have accomplished in less than four months as a nation. Where would we be without the vaccines, a compassionate and hard-working president, and science? Nowhere.

I realize there is a sizable chunk of Americans who will never get vaccinated, and as a result we will likely not reach herd immunity. If you are an anti-vaxer, it is your choice not to get the shots, just as it was mine to consent to receive the inoculations.

However, I see the “no vaccines for me” choice as a short-sighted and selfish one. I view the approved, no-charge COVID-19 vaccines as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. (If you’ve played Monopoly, you get my drift.)

Without the vaccines (two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for me) I would have felt forever afraid and vulnerable. I would have continued to be worried about my well-being, not to mention paranoid about spreading the virus to others. All of us would be going nowhere … figuratively and literally.

Now, with the vaccine coursing through my veins, I am happier, freer, and less afraid than I’ve been in fifteen months. I can plan a trip with my husband to visit friends in Montana this summer, sing again unmasked in the same space with my friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, and work out at Club SAR, the community gym I frequent, without wearing a covering over my face. None of that would have happened without the amazing science of epidemiology and vaccines.

Best of all, blurry or not, with the boosting benefit of two shots in my right arm and some mild discomfort for a few days, I get to see the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances, and mingle with them again. That’s something I have missed dearly.

Thank you, Science.

The Ultimate Curveball

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.

#242 and a Rose for You

I began this blogging odyssey three years ago today by publishing my list of memoir writing tips. I had no grand plans or notions of what this would become, who I might meet in the blogosphere, or how frequently I would post. (This is #242. That’s more than eighty posts a year since May 4, 2018.) I simply wanted to exercise my voice, promote my books, and share observations about my new life in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

But this experience has turned into much more than a lengthy chronicle of disparate topics. It has become a public place for me to examine the beauty of nature, the geographic grandeur and social diversity of the Grand Canyon State, the importance of family and community, the realities of aging and grief, the fright and implications of a global pandemic, the humor and irony of everyday occurrences, and the creative possibilities of a literary life.

Some of you have followed this space for multiple years, left frequent and encouraging comments, and even read a few of my books. Others have joined this journey recently. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am grateful for the time you have devoted to my writing and connections we’ve made. Thank you. This rose is for you.

There have been days since February–especially after completing my latest book–when I have realized my brain needed a rest. Given the energy and time commitment required, I wondered if this blog had run its course. However, today as I write this, I can’t imagine living without this forum. It is a strand of my life that keeps my vital and relevant.

Composing and sharing stories from my laptop–and peppering them with images and poetry from time to time too–is an important part of my identity. It is my passion. I need this authentic (though remote) social connection. I want to continue to be a part of the dialogue. Most important, I want to call attention to the simple joys of living and the healing aspects of nature, which often are overlooked.

Going forward, I don’t know how often I will post. But, as in the past, I will speak my mind, test story ideas, pay tribute to a rare person or defining moment, dabble in short fiction (which I began to do in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree), and explore the implications of everything from a personal joy to a national sorrow.

I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey and comment when the mood strikes … no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.