Category: Survival

Sweet Acacia

It’s not quite spring, but changes are brewing in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere. Like a gusty, forty-mile-an-hour wind that rattled our bougainvillea and stripped palm leaves last night, there is something new stirring in the air.

Maybe hope is returning, in the form of fluffy, tangerine-colored balls dangling from branches. The sweet acacia trees have begun to perfume the Valley of the Sun.

Through much of the year, these shrubs prefer to stretch horizontally with little fanfare. But when the blossoms appear, they take center stage through the scent that intoxicates desert paths.

The tiny blooms remind me how much my life has changed from the pink-and-white magnolia trees of the Midwest. As a child in Missouri and an adult in Illinois, I watched as singular warm days of spiky temperatures in March and April seduced them to bloom early, only to be tricked by a later frost or snow that browned the petals.

Hope is appearing on the horizon in other forms. My sixty-six-year-old sister just texted me a masked photo of her seated after she received her first vaccination in Chicago. I suppose I’ve been worried about her, because I shed a few tears as I studied the image. I could glimpse the smile in her eyes, though her face was obscured. As more of us get vaccinated–and a storehouse of worry is released–I expect a river of previously pent-up emotions will flow around the world.

On Tuesday, Arizona expanded the COVID-19 vaccination sign-up process to include those 55 and up. Right after noon, Tom and I agonized over our laptops. We kept refreshing like feverish slot players at a casino grabbing the bar for another chance at a jackpot. After an hour or so of hand wringing and cursing, we were lucky to crack the code of online registration.

We are scheduled for the first round of vaccinations on the morning of March 11 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, just a few miles from our home. I don’t expect to enjoy the prick of the needle in my arm that day. It won’t come close to the alluring scent of the acacia trees or the thrill of a few more friends stopping by to purchase signed copies of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.

But, like millions of others around the world, I’m fine with minor inconveniences and discomforts. Small side effects from a life-saving vaccine–miraculously tested, approved and produced in less than a year–will pale with the prospects of dodging COVID-19.

Yes, I’m more than ready to board an express train to a freer and more promising destination. I suspect you are too. I’ll see you in the sweet land of fortunate and grateful survivors. We’ll be there, like thousands of others, smiling from behind our masks.

Return to Eldorado

Though the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not one of those dusty western stories. You know, where the good guy returns to the scene of the crime for revenge against the villain and they duel it out in front of a saloon?

Instead, this is a much simpler, quieter tale about one man–me–beginning to take his shrunken life back a day after the United States surpassed half a million COVID-19-related deaths. (Incidentally, if you are like me, you are wondering if the decline in new cases and hospitalizations are harbingers of the waning days of a global pandemic or a mere lull, a mirage in the desert that has seduced us to believe some of us may actually escape after all.)

It had been nearly a year since I swam laps at Eldorado Pool in south Scottsdale. It exists about a mile from our condo. Before March 2020, it was a place I frequented three or four times a week. Of course, COVID-19 was the villain or at least the culprit that has kept me from going there for nearly twelve months.

Today, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 I returned to this place that soothes and energizes my body and spirit. I wrote a new chapter gliding in the water. That consisted of thirty minutes in lane eleven of our thirteen-lane, Olympic-size, community pool.

I was one of about a dozen swimmers in the pool at ten o’clock this morning. We were a lucky twelve, cupping our hands to push through cool water under sixty-five-degree blue skies, far from the snow and bluster that has consumed most of the United States recently.

There were a few familiar faces, like Frank’s. He smiled, asked how my winter has been, and if I’d been working on a new book. His question reminded me how long it had been since we had talked, how much we hadn’t discussed, how little he knew of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, and how much I had missed the connected pieces of my life … like swimming in a community pool, trading stories face-to-face with friends, realizing that the few added pounds around my middle can be shed easily by recapturing this strand of my life a few times a week. One lap at a time.

My swimming is over for the day. Now, outside the pool, I hold my breath–like most of the rest of the world–and wait. I am one of those under sixty-fivers (just barely) ready to be vaccinated, ready to schedule it as soon as I can, ready to recapture more strands of my life, ready to return to a world that once felt familiar.

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

A New Day in History

As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.

No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.

Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.

Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.

But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.

Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.

From Crab Apples to Lemon Trees

In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.

In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.

As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.

Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.

I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.

In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.

If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.

Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.

Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.

The Shadows of 2020

In spite of the promise of a new presidency here in the U.S., we live in the shadows of the pandemic. Even so, Tom and I choose to hang wreaths on our front and back doors to brighten our space and give thanks for all we have as Christmas approaches.

Like many of you, we do our best to help people in need. Sometimes our assistance comes in the form of a small end-of-year check to a worthy charity or a card for a neighbor who’s lost her father. But what do you do when the pain of an unexpected moment shakes you to the core?

Recently, we were driving to our community gym for our typical, masked hour-long workout. On the way there, we noticed a familiar figure on the side of the road. It was a young man walking toward us. He was pulling his suitcase on rollers behind him.

After we passed, we realized it was Nathaniel (not his real name) trudging south down Hayden Road in Scottsdale. He is a friend. Someone who has hiked with us, shot baskets with us at the gym, and (before the pandemic) visited with us at our home.

Nathaniel–a smart, sensitive, handsome guy–has endured several tough years. He’s fighting a drug addiction and has been in and out of treatment for it.

About six months ago, he fell off our radar. He no longer has a phone, so we lost touch with him. Now, unexpectedly, he reentered our lives, lugging the weight of his existence and his world in a two-by-three-foot container.

Immediately, Tom slowed down. We turned on a side street. We found our way back, pulled up next to Nathaniel, got out of the car, and approached. Nathaniel was worn and disoriented, but happy to see us. Over the following fifteen minutes, he told us he had been in jail for several days after an altercation with his family. He wouldn’t or didn’t describe the details. Whatever happened, the year is ending with him roaming the streets.

Tom and I offered to give him a lift to a friend’s home (where he said he was walking). But, after repeatedly asking if we could drive him there, Nathaniel insisted he needed to get there on his own. Eventually, Tom handed him several disposable masks for his protection and a slip of paper with our contact information, so he could reach us when and if he is ready. I gave him twenty dollars for food. He thanked us both and continued on his way.

After we drove off, the sadness and horror we felt materialized. I began to cry for Nathaniel. I imagined the sketchy existence ahead for him, wandering with a fierce addiction, flying solo without the security of a family, home or path to a reasonable future.

How devastated Nathaniel’s mother and father must be, watching their son’s life unravel. What if one of my sons were in the same predicament? What would I do to help him recover? I think the answer is everything, but I don’t walk in the shoes of his parents. I don’t know the history of Nathaniel’s trauma that has led him to a life on the edge.

After this episode and the constant uncertainty we all carry into the new year, it is impossible for me to put a pretty red bow on 2020. Yet the wreaths Tom and I bought remind me how fortunate I am to have a modest, comfortable home in a warm climate. There are so many like Nathaniel who don’t. They are hurting, lost, hungry and homeless.

None of us know what the new year will bring, but I try to maintain a half-glass-full perspective. I hope–under the guidance of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and a kinder, gentler and more humane administration–we can turn the corner as a nation in 2021. Because only when and if we address the growing needs of the Nathaniel’s of our world, our disenfranchised and discouraged citizens, will we begin to escape the darkness and emerge from the shadows of 2020.

The Cottonwood Trees

Four-thirty on the last Sunday afternoon of November. Sliced turkey breast, roasted root vegetables and ramekins of mashed sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce await in the fridge. Remnants of a holiday weekend.

Neither Tom or I feel like cooking dinner. We exercise and write instead. We will rely on the convenience of leftovers as sun-crafted silhouettes dance across the windowsill of our sunroom.

I just completed an hour-long walk along the Crosscut Canal that winds through Phoenix. I’m one of the lucky ones. Healthy (so far, at least). Thankful for the love and companionship of my husband. Close to a wide open outdoor space.

Today I walked the Crosscut Canal alone. It was just a few bicyclists, joggers, hikers, fishermen, and me. Scattered along the Papago Park trails. Some folks wore masks. Some didn’t. There was plenty of distance between us.

On the way back to our condo I paused to admire a group of cottonwood trees on the other side of the fence. They swayed near a shallow pond inside the Desert Botanical Garden. Brittle from the drought. But still they survive.

The cottonwoods have become a benchmark for Tom and me. Majestic, tall reminders of life on the edge. “Let’s walk to the cottonwood trees and back.”

Today as I strolled past them, their shiny yellow and green leaves flickered in the fading Sonoran sunshine. I shaded my eyes and gazed up looking for reassurance beyond the breadth of their branches. It was the same comfort the cottonwood trees provided in March, May, July, September and October.

I left the canal path with the certainty that the cottonwood trees will be there in December and beyond. Because that’s what nature does. It endures past holidays and pandemics. It reminds us to do the same.

A Gift to Ease Your Grief

As COVID-19 cases climb and shadows of worry and anxiety cast doubts, we stew in our numbness. We attempt to process the depth of our grief. It has no bounds.

Here in the United States, we prepare for a thankless Thanksgiving Day 2020 minus more than a quarter of a million Americans–gone, but not forgotten–who sat at tables beside us a year ago. Our hearts ache for them and their families.

Seven years ago grief consumed me as the first Thanksgiving after my mother’s death approached. Tom and I decided we needed a holiday getaway from our then suburban Chicago home. We needed to shake things up. To begin a new tradition in a place that wouldn’t spark the rawness of Midwestern memories.

Both of my sons loved the idea. They decided to join us for an extended Thanksgiving weekend in the Arizona desert. It felt as if the odds were against us when Tom developed pneumonia after raking leaves on a frosty early-November Illinois morning. But, remarkably, he rebounded quickly. We kept our plans to fly west.

On Thanksgiving Day, Kirk, Nick, his friend Stephanie, Tom and I dined outside at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel. We enjoyed turkey and stuffing, seated around a courtyard patio table shaded by an orange tree.

Three months after that November 2013 trip, I retired from corporate life and began to feel a calling to write about my grief. I soon discovered that by honoring and answering my creative impulses, I could ride through the waves of tears and numbness and emerge whole on the other side.

As strange as it sounds, grief became the fertile ground for my writing journey. In 2016, I published my first book, From Fertile Ground. It tells the story of three writers–my grandfather, mother and me–and our desires to leave behind a legacy of our own distinctive observations of our family, our loves, our losses, our worlds.

In honor of Thanksgiving and those we’ve loved and lost, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from November 21 through November 25.

I hope reading it will inspire you (or a friend who is grieving) to find your fertile ground. To discover your voice. To channel your creativity. To emerge from the numbness. To tell your unvarnished story. Perhaps even to leave behind a brief review of my book online.

Thankful

There is nothing idyllic about life in November 2020. The best we can do is wash our hands, wear our masks, keep our distances, hug (only metaphorically) and pray for our loved ones, apply regular coats of hand sanitizer, disavow false claims of voter fraud, limit our exposure to anxiety-producing news items, contribute to our favorite charities, and find a way to keep living.

Even in this dark period, I continue to sing with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. Most of our rehearsals have been conducted via Zoom technology. Recently, we have divided ourselves into small groups of seven or eight for in-person rehearsals on Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursday nights.

I show up on Thankful Thursdays to practice holiday music. It’s a scene from a sci-fi movie. Individually, we check our temperatures at the door, fan out ten or more feet apart across a large room, wear masks and an additional layer of protection behind a face shield. Our artistic director and accompanist (also behind masks and shields) proceed to lead us from afar. The experience is as remote as it sounds, but in 2020, it’s the best we can do.

When rehearsal is through two hours later, we spray our chairs with disinfectant, turn the lights off in the room, walk out the side door into the Phoenix moonlight, return to our cars separately, and drive home.

We are rehearsing one of my favorite songs, Thankful (words and music by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, and Richard Page), for our December online performance. It’s a stirring piece I first performed in Chicago as a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus in 2012. It gave me goosebumps then, but the message is more universal and relevant eight years later.

I hope reading these lyrics will bring you a little peace. It’s a mental space I will travel to when I sing this song from behind my mask tonight. Even with all the pain and heartache in our lives, we have to believe we will get through this.

There’s so much to be thankful for.

***

Some days we forget to look around us. Some days we can’t see the joy that surrounds us. So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Look beyond ourselves, there’s so much sorrow. It’s way too late to say, “I’ll cry tomorrow.” Each of us must find our truth; it’s so long overdue.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Even with our differences, there is a place we’re all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Maricopa

With every TV update of returns or refresh of election news coverage on my smartphone, I hold my breath.

Will this be the moment? Will Joe Biden arrive in the land of two-hundred-seventy electoral votes and officially become president-elect of the United States? Though my anxiety runs laps in my buzzing brain, he waits patiently. Ready to calm the turbulent waters. Steady a sinking ship. Steer our nation out of this dark age. This endless nightmare.

Diligent workers and volunteers in previously mostly disconnected swing states–Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona–count unprocessed ballots. Anonymous state and local officials sit and stand. Doing their jobs while cameras scrutinize from above.

They are not our healthcare heroes in hospitals. Fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. Working to save lives that teeter as new cases escalate each day. However, they are just as heroic. Unfettered Republican and Democrat openers, scanners and sorters tabulating mailed-in ballots from distinct counties: Chatham, Dekalb, Fulton and Gwinnett in Georgia; Alleghany, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery in Pennsylvania; Clark in Nevada; and Maricopa in Arizona. The list of counties and ballot counting goes on.

I live in Maricopa County. The gigantic land mass was named after the Maricopa Native American tribe, who originally lived along the banks of the Colorado River.

Maricopa is the fastest growing county in the United States. It encompasses the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is home to four-and-a-half million diverse people.

Republicans and Democrats. Young and old. Poor and rich. Straight and gay. Employed and jobless. Citizens of all religions or none at all. Hispanic, Asian, white, black, and Native American people living in the vast Sonoran Desert.

As the final votes are tallied and reported in Maricopa County and elsewhere, this process will end some day soon. We must disregard unfounded claims of fraud and distractions from the White House and accept and celebrate the election outcome (whenever it arrives).

I believe all of us in Maricopa are stronger if we embrace our differences in this wide-open space of grand beauty, dry heat, and burgeoning possibilities. The same can be said for every Maricopa, every diverse American community, no matter the climate or terrain.

With Thanksgiving less than three weeks away, it’s time to give thanks to our democratic process, open our hearts and minds to our neighbors, and look forward to writing a new chapter under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If we follow their lead, we can unite.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.