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January Musings

It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).

I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.

***

Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.

The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.

Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.

***

I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.

I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.

Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.

Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.

***

The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.

The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.

A New Creative Wrinkle

I am especially conscious of my age and vulnerability right now. There is nothing worrisome to report. I feel well. It’s just that–early in 2022–Tom and I are focusing on important administrative tasks to protect ourselves and our families.

Specifically, we will move to Medicare later this year, because we turn sixty-five in July. We have begun to do research. We’ve met with a third party. She explained how it works. She has helped to cut through the mystery. (By the way, I used to help organizations communicate about complicated health care and retirement programs, but that background doesn’t make this transition any easier.)

We also are updating our estate plans to make certain they reflect our Arizona status and latest wishes. The pandemic isn’t the driver, but it certainly has amplified our efforts to make sure our affairs are in order. As much as I hate dwelling on my mortality, it makes sense to plan ahead.

All of this technical and legal blather has clogged my brain lately, leaving me feeling a little dim. Is it a coincidence that the light in our refrigerator should go out yesterday? I don’t think so.

We tried replacing the old bulb with a new one, but it appears we have an electrical issue. Fortunately, the appliance is doing its job. It’s keeping our food cold (and frozen in the upper compartment). It’s just that we need a flashlight to find the yogurt, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.

I digress. That’s not what this story is about. Ironically, in the relative darkness of early 2022–the pandemic and our refrigerator–there’s a bright and new creative wrinkle to my writing that I want to talk about. One which changes the landscape of my past experience. One that goes beyond my blogging, memoir writing, poetry, and occasional forays into fiction.

About eight months ago, Marc–the artistic director of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–blindsided me with this question: “Would you be interested in writing lyrics for a suite of songs for one of our concerts in 2022? It will be a celebration of diverse voices.”

Hearing these words, I think my jaw may have dropped. Once I closed my mouth and opened it again, “of course!” was my immediate response.

I could feel my smile grow ten sizes. I never imagined having an opportunity of this sort, especially concerning a topic that is so important and personal … turning the painful, transformative, and triumphant stories of Phoenix-area LGBTQA citizens into something more. Into poetry and music.

Since that early, exploratory conversation with Marc, I’ve collaborated with David (another member of the chorus) who is composing the music. I’ve written lyrics for four songs, which will be performed on March 12, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The concert will be part of Tempe’s Pride celebration.

On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, this will all become more real. Marc and David will pass out the music to members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (including me sitting in the back row and singing second tenor).

For the first time, we will begin to rehearse the music David and I have created. I know I will feel a surge of pride and energy when I see the words “Lyrics by Mark Johnson” in the upper right corner of the score.

Sometimes life serves up happy surprises. It reminds us that our existence is more than needling administrative responsibilities, the darkness of a pandemic, or the frustrations of a burned-out light bulb.

Sometimes the outcome is brighter, more hopeful; we find ourselves exploring a new creative wrinkle, doing something we are passionate about, taking on a role we never saw coming.

Yes–remarkably at the age of sixty-four–I am a lyricist.

The Past Eight Years

Eight years ago this month, I left my communication consulting job at Aon Hewitt. Technically, I retired in January 2014, though I’ve hardly dropped off the face of the earth since then. I’ve simply escaped to the desert.

It feels strange for me to admit this: some details of my thirty-four-year communication career in Chicago–especially the most daunting moments with impossible clients–have faded. What I remember most are the creative accomplishments and closest colleagues.

Ironically, while our country has moved into a period of darkness and upheaval during the past eight years, I’ve transformed my life into one that more closely resembles who I am and what I value.

I’ve gotten married, moved cross country, survived a heart attack, dropped about forty pounds, found a new home with my husband, nurtured the artist inside, written four books and nearly 300 blog entries, coached both of my sons as they’ve navigated life and career changes, made a bunch of new friends in a warm climate, and evolved into a more contented person.

In that sense, trading my corporate life for that of an emerging, independent writer has felt more like shedding the weight of a familiar suit of armor to discover a more light-hearted, personal, and sometimes vulnerable existence underneath.

To mark the anniversary of my retirement–and subsequent literary emergence–I’m discounting the paperback version of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on Amazon during the month of January.

Hopefully, this will be just the incentive you need to devote a little more time to reading in the new year.

The Hopeful Realist

On the spectrum of optimism to pessimism, my attitudes on a given day place me somewhere in the middle near realism. Though, generally, I maintain an air of hopefulness.

For illustration purposes, I don’t think the world will end tomorrow or the next day, but I do think we have lots of problems to solve. Currently, the pandemic and global warming are chief among them.

Beyond that, the gun violence in this country is insane. (Incidentally, I would mandate that every American see the movie Mass. Released in October 2021, Tom and I watched it last night. It is the most riveting and emotionally honest film I’ve seen in the past year.)

In April 2021, the CDC reported this sobering statistic. For a child born in the United States in 2021, the average life expectancy is 77.8 years. That’s a decline of a full year from 2019 when the life expectancy was 78.8 years. The realist in me says we’re heading in the wrong direction.

For a male born in 1957 (that’s me), the life expectancy is 66.4 years. That’s a daunting number when I consider that I am now 64.5 years. However, the fact that I’ve made it this far (I’m no actuary) and don’t take undo risks (I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and buckle my seat belt), puts me in a position to make it another twenty or so.

Family history tells me that too. My father lived to be nearly 80; my mother almost 90. Plus, I don’t smoke and drink very little. Since surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I’ve dropped twenty-five pounds and kept it off. I’m fit and committed to a regular exercise regimen that keeps me strong.

Of course, life isn’t predictable really. It’s a sound philosophy and practice to live each day–each moment–as it comes. Yoga, meditation, and a raging pandemic have taught me that.

I spoke with Frances on January 2. She is my mother’s sister and the only remaining relative from either side of my family from the Silent Generation (those born from 1928 to 1945).

Born January 1, 1932 (the first baby in the new year in High Point, North Carolina), Frances turned 90 earlier this week. I called to wish her a happy birthday belatedly. She and husband Paul, also in his nineties, live in Davidson, North Carolina.

Frances is or was the spunky-and-opinionated adventurer in my mother’s family. I’ve always felt a special bond with her. I admire her zest for life. In 2015, I flew to the Tar Heel State to spend a little time with my worldly southern aunt.

The experience helped me heal after my mother’s death in 2013 and finish my first book, From Fertile Ground. I know visiting with me helped Frances too. She loved her older sister, who moved away as a young woman to create a life in the Midwest. Being together gave both of us a chance to complete the circle of our loved one’s life.

The sad truth is Frances is frail and forgetful now. I could hear it in her voice last Sunday. She’s far less sharp, though I’m certain she knew the voice on the other end of the phone line was me. Our conversation was brief and pleasant.

I recall Frances telling me in 2015 that she wanted to live to be 100. I’m doubtful she’ll survive ten more years. Even the infallible Betty White fell a few weeks short of the centenarian status most of us expected she would achieve.

At 90, Frances suffers from dementia. After the phone call, Lu–one of her daughters-in-law–confirmed it for me via text. I wasn’t surprised to receive this news, but knowing it prompted me to feel sad and reflective. My mother lived with cognitive impairment during her final few years.

Lu told me Frances doesn’t remember what happened the previous day. For instance, she doesn’t recall receiving the card and birthday gift I sent, though the United States Postal Service tracking system tells me it arrived safely at her home before Christmas.

At any rate, I’m grateful for the moments I shared on the phone with Frances. “I’m feeling pretty well,” she told me with a familiar lilt in her voice. “My husband looks after me.”

“I’ve always loved you, Aunt Frances,” I said with a hitch in my affirmation. “I’m a day late calling you, but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you on your birthday.”

Frances sputtered in her response. “You mean so much to me, honey.” Though she never mentioned my name during our conversation, the hopeful realist in me thinks she knew it was Mark, the writer.

Somewhere in her past or present existence, I want to believe she remembers that I am her sensitive gay nephew. The one with two grown sons and a husband. The one who survived a heart attack. The one who recounts stories about the people he loves.

A New Year Resolution

Photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

This is a true story about a chance encounter on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1962. It’s a testament to the good citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing sixty years ago.

The story, A New Year Resolution (I wrote it in 2017), fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life even after seemingly awful things happen. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of Missouri stories.

As we cross into 2022, I wish you good health and a few magical surprises to lighten your spirit.

***

Aunt Thelma was flush with frozen anticipation and prepared to toot her fringe-laced party horn. It’s how she felt every year. She had a new year resolution: to be the first out the door to inhale the cold remnants of December night air and replace it with January oxygen expectant with sharp promise and unassigned possibilities.

Thelma fumbled to secure the buttons on her worn car coat, snap her hat in place on the top of her wobbly bun, and race into the frigid Midwestern night. “Happy New Year,” she hollered leading her merry band out the door as the clock struck twelve. In an instant, the atmosphere from two distinct years comingled in her lungs and the clamoring began on cue.

Uncle Ralph, Mom, Dad, Diane, and I twirled our ratcheting noisemakers, flailed away with wooden spoons on pots and pans, and shrieked with glee. Magically, in an instant, the joys and regrets of 1961 were erased. Each of us had a fresh batch of winter air to contend with. It was January 1, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri.

The frosty air told us it was too cold for the revelry to linger. By 12:15 a.m., we scurried back inside and returned our cockamamie thingamabobs and pointy hats. As Thelma and Ralph gathered it all and washed off the wooden spoons for safe keeping in the kitchen drawer, Dad and Mom broke the news to Diane and me. Our makeshift winter carnival was over.

With Dad behind the wheel, it was time to head home to South St. Louis County and our three-bedroom brick ranch in Affton. We had an hour-long drive ahead of us in our ’59 Plymouth.

Dad figured Hanley Road would be the most direct route. He could take the highway, but he didn’t want to contend with higher speeds and the potential for an anonymous, boozy driver veering head-on into his path. The thought of that was too much for his weary brain.

Under the whir of tires hugging cold pavement, Mom glanced over her left shoulder to check on the two of us in the backseat. Diane and I were beginning to fade. Mom knew we would be asleep soon. She and Dad were prepared to rouse us from our slumber once we pulled into the driveway. She felt comfort knowing we would need to be carried into the house and rolled into bed. She didn’t know there was more excitement coming before we trailed off to sleep.

A few minutes passed before something caught Mom’s eye between the high beams of an approaching car. She spotted a fuzzy figure up ahead a few hundred feet on the right shoulder. Someone was walking alone. From a distance, it could have been a man or woman. She and Dad couldn’t be sure.

Dad reduced his speed. As we approached, our headlights illuminated a bewildered young woman teetering on silver high heels, shivering under a skimpy mink stole thrown over her shoulders, exposing an emerald cocktail dress and too much skin on a cold night.

Mom verbalized what Dad was thinking. “Walter, I think she needs help. Let’s pull over and see if she needs a ride somewhere.” They rolled down their windows and waved her over to the car.

At first, the young woman’s eyes darted away. She could see a man was driving the car. But when she realized that an entire family was in the car, she relaxed a bit and approached on her fast-freezing feet.

“It’s so cold out, honey. Can we help you?” Mom offered through her partially open window. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”

“Yes,” she stammered. “I guess I do.” She grabbed the hinge of the back door and shimmied into the backseat next to Diane. “I was going home with a date after a New Year’s Eve party, and we got into a big fight. So, I got out. That bastard drove off and left me on the side of the road … Oh, I’m sorry about the language.”

“It’s alright,” Dad assured her. “We’re just glad we stopped. Point us in the right direction and we’ll get you home. What’s your name?”

“Oh, it’s Melba,” she confirmed. It was a name I’d seldom heard. Melba recited her address in Maplewood. By this time, any notion of sleep in our eyes was history. It vanished when Melba and her allure entered our world. We were wide-eyed and dumbfounded–captivated by her exotic name and slinky dress. Diane homed in on Melba’s beaded purse and shoes. I was mesmerized by her glistening green eyes, which flickered when cars flashed by. They matched her sequined gown.

Melba must have been an aspiring movie star or a lost character in a Twilight Zone episode, I thought. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, I was certain she was navigating a sudden detour on the road of life, trying to make the best of plans gone awry. She was craving silence in a secure sedan with no requirements, explanations, or assumptions.

From the front seat, Mom respected Melba’s need for quiet and distance. In the back, Diane and I sat motionless; we preferred to watch relief wash over Melba’s face. Dad focused on the tasks at hand: operating our vehicle and driving Melba home. He could tell the young woman was rattled. He wanted to return her home safely without fanfare.

Within twenty minutes, Dad pulled up in front of a tidy bungalow with white awnings and a steep front porch. This must be where Melba lived, I thought. Even though it was 1:30 a.m., all the lights inside Melba’s house were lit. I was thankful and relieved that her family had waited up.

With a flip of her hair from the top of her fur collar, Melba thanked Dad and Mom for the ride. She flashed a grateful smile, wrapped each end of her mink stole around her neck, patted Diane and me on the top of our heads, and braced for the cold air. She left the cozy warmth of our green sedan.

By this time, I had imagined a whole new life for Melba–a wandering, sensitive soul with a caring mother and father of her own, a nosey little brother, and a dream to escape her world and climb a ladder into a fairy-tale universe filled with brilliant stars.

Then, under the partial glow of a frosty January moon, I watched Melba ascend the concrete stairs, turn to wave goodbye, and step across the threshold of her ordinary front door into an awaiting aura. Certainly, New Year’s Day 1962 was off on a magical foot.

None of us thought we’d see Melba again. And we were right. Even so, all we needed was thirty minutes together to keep the memory alive. I curled up in the back seat next to my sister and considered the vision of Melba–coming and going in a pre-dawn hush.

There wasn’t much to say, but Dad knew what to do. He eased the car from the curb and guided us back onto the road. With a flash of his headlights, he signaled to Melba that all was good.

We were on our way home.

Gone, But Not Forgotten

As I look back on 2021, this story–Gone, But Not Forgotten, which I wrote in April–may be the most meaningful and emblematic piece I wrote in this odd and odd-numbered year. It was also the most viewed story on my website over the past twelve months.

I suspect that’s because we have all become so familiar with loss in this age of Covid. It pervades our lives. It has become that unwelcome house guest that threatens to stay or return without explanation.

But there is also greater intimacy that can come with loss. Since Gary passed away in April, Tom and I have become closer with Pat, our neighbor and his widow. The hugs between us are tighter, the smiles broader when we greet each other outside our doors.

There are lessons to be learned from grief. It can make us stronger. Read on.

Mark Johnson Stories

Gary was a fixture in our community. Nearly every day, through our kitchen window, Tom and I spotted him beyond our fig tree. He sat contentedly on the park bench in front of his condo, wearing his favorite cowboy hat, smoking a cigarette. Our neighbor–an eighty-six-year-old-man with a wry sense of humor and perpetual cough–died last week.

Over the past few years, Tom and I watched Gary’s slow slide and the constant care Pat (his devoted wife of fifty-three years) provided. In recent weeks, Gary’s decline had become more precipitous. We knew it was only a matter of time–days, hours, minutes, seconds–before he left. Ironically, it happened on Good Friday right outside his front door and ours. He died under our fig tree.

On Friday afternoon, after receiving our second Pfizer vaccinations the day before, Tom was napping in the sunroom. I was feeling fine, writing in our den. Around…

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Egg Custard Pie: A Holiday Favorite

If you follow my blog, you know that–in addition to being a writer–I am the baker in our family. One of my favorite desserts for the holidays is egg custard pie.

If you’re looking for a simple-to-bake-and-creamy pie recipe, this one is a keeper. It definitely qualifies as comfort food at a time in the world when we could all use a heaping helping of that.

This recipe was passed to me via the southern branch of my family tree … from my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Martha Jane Matilda Simpson Miller. She lived in rural Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the early 1900s.

* * *

Ingredients: 3/4 cup sugar, 1/2 stick butter, 4 large eggs, 3 tablespoons flour, 1 2/3 cups milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Directions: Cream sugar and butter until light. Beat eggs and add to sugar/butter mixture. Add flour and beat until smooth. Add vanilla to milk. Mix milk into other ingredients gradually until smooth. Pour into an unbaked pie crust (deep dish) and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes or until custard is set and crust is brown. (The original recipe didn’t call for cinnamon, but I like it. If you do too, sprinkle the pie liberally before you place it in the oven.)

***

Incidentally, this egg custard pie recipe also appears in From Fertile Ground, my first book. which I wrote and published in 2016. It’s not a cookbook, but a memoir about love, loss, and grief … and the healing power of the written word across three generations of my family. If you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll check it out.

Most important, as 2021 comes to a close, I wish you good health. As we continue to endure this global health crisis, I encourage you to find comfort in your creative passions in 2022.

Free Rollercoaster Rides Through December 22

In April 1974, I became a rollercoaster operator. It was my first job. I was sixteen years old.

Like most teenagers, I didn’t have a clue about life. But, as I think about it more than forty-seven years later, “driving” the River King Mine Train at Six Flags Over Mid-America near St. Louis became the creative catalyst for twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. I call them MOstalgic tales of American culture in the 1960s and 70s, when children had far more freedom to grow, play and run amok.

From December 20 through 22, you can download a free Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator on Amazon worldwide. It’s my holiday gift to you.

The last essay in the book is especially timely. It celebrates a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger nearly sixty years ago on New Year’s Day 1962.

As 2021 draws to a close, perhaps my stories will make you smile. Maybe even inspire you to post a review online. But, at the very least, I hope they prompt you to remember a simpler time and the twists, turns and thrills from your own childhood–wherever you were born, wherever you grew up, wherever you called home.

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.

Turning Stuff into Wisdom

I’ve learned a lot in my sixty-four-plus years. Sometimes it feels like my brain is a swirling repository of “stuff” … data and memories.

On other days, it feels like I’ve found meaningful ways to synthesize my life experiences and relationships. Then–voila–I discover they have morphed magically into wisdom.

I’m not sure exactly when this wisdom thing began to kick into high gear, but probably in my fifties after my mother died. Then, certainly again at sixty when I suffered a mild heart attack. In both cases, I had to find my way back to the surface to breathe again and survive the depths of despair.

Most definitely, it is the challenging aspects of life–loss, fear, anxiety, discrimination–that prompt me to more forcefully explore, verbalize and share my opinions and feelings … not the happier, even moments.

I’ve been thinking about this because I have a few friends/relations who are dealing with difficult stuff. One is grieving the loss of a significant loving relationship while trying to find his way in a new job; the others are navigating the precipitous physical decline of two frail parents.

In both situations, I am there to provide empathy and support. I imagine these individuals feel as if they are lost in a dense forest without a compass. Yet, I suspect, the clouds will lift eventually. On no particular schedule, light will begin to filter through. Hope will reappear.

One day, the internalized aspects of loss and pain will spring from the ground like crocuses emerging from the frozen ground of winter. And, a new batch of wisdom will be born and saved for the next difficult encounter of life.