This is a momentous post for me–number 400 written and shared over the past five-plus years here.
As we begin June — Pride month — the topic of this one is more consequential than most.
Since May 2018, I’ve posted a long-and-winding stream of diverse stories about the Scottsdale-Arizona community I inhabit and about my life … as an independent writer, avid gardener, animal lover, critical thinker, loyal son, non-traditional father, and fortunate husband.
This openness is something I’ve learned and earned. More than sixty years ago, I was a shy child. I hid behind my mother and sucked my thumb for reassurance.
On a subconscious level, I must have felt I needed protection … for being different … though it would be decades before I would understand and embrace my gayness.
In the early 1990s (after my divorce from Jean and before I met my husband Tom), I felt lost and afraid. I certainly didn’t imagine I would one day sing on a stage with dozens of other gay men in Chicago … and then again in Phoenix.
Or that my husband and older son Nick (also living in Arizona) would watch and smile from the audience.
Much less, that I would write lyrics for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus or develop dialogue for a palette of LGBTQ characters–a libretto, of sorts–for a concert in June 2023, titled Born to Be Brave.
This latest thrilling endeavor will premiere June 3 (2 pm and 7 pm shows) and then again June 4 (2 pm) at Tempe Center for the Arts.
All of this leads me to the point of this post.
In 2023–in a country where some would prefer not to say or hear the word gay or work to pass legislation to remove books from shelves written by gay authors–it is more important for all of us to live openly and loudly.
Moving back into the closet is simply not a viable or healthy option.
In that spirit, I am sharing two photos with this post. They contain images of my family members (past and present) and a sampling of the most important aspects of my authentic life.
For the concert this weekend, each of us (about seventy members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) will wear a stole that drapes around our necks with such images … images that tell the stories of our lives for all the world to see.
Yes, in June or any month, all of us have much to be proud of. With the help of inspirational music, compassion from friends and neighbors, and the safe haven of our community, we’ve come a long way.
It’s my book of Arizona stories and St. Louis flashbacks, which includes a chapter on The Carol Burnett Show and the positive impact the program had on our family in the 1970s.
There is one other significant and unexpected side effect, which Carol’s letter has prompted: a touch of grief.
If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know that my mother–Helen Johnson–was the consummate letter writer.
From the late 1980s (when Mom retired) until 2010, she sent me more than a thousand letters laced with love and wisdom.
Some of them appear in From Fertile Ground. It is a three-generation writer’s mosaic about love, loss, and grief. I wrote and published the book a few years after my mother died in 2013.
Helen didn’t quite make it to ninety, the milestone Carol Burnett transcended recently. She came up six months short.
So, when Carol’s letter arrived in the mail it cued a few pangs of sadness and a familiar pleasure. One that has been missing from my life … missing from all of our lives … for a long time. That is the personal, human, and lasting connection produced by a handwritten letter.
With all of this as background, yesterday I pulled out the large blue plastic container that holds all of my mother’s letters–sent to Tom, Nick, Kirk, and me over the years. I have them classified by year.
I began to leaf through her 2003 correspondence. That was the year she turned eighty, on July 26, 2003, to be precise. My sister Diane and I hosted a big party for Mom that summer in Geneva, Illinois.
Family and friends traveled from near and far to attend Helen Johnson’s birthday dinner at the Mill Race Inn. We celebrated her first eighty years. Afterwards, we crossed a bridge over the Fox River to continue the party at the Herrington Inn, where many of our guests were staying.
At one point, a gentleman playing violin walked through the lobby. He asked my mother if she would like him to play Waltzing Matilda, her favorite song. (Matilda was her middle name.)
Mom’s eyes sparkled with glee as he stood over her. He slid the bow across the strings, and I watched her spirit soar. In short order, she began to sing … “Waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda, you’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.”
Ordinarily, my mother didn’t enjoy being the center of attention. But, looking back, that moment in a posh hotel on the banks of the Fox River surrounded by loved ones may have been the happiest and most spontaneous moment of Helen Matilda Ferrell Johnson’s life.
If you’ve been doing the math as you read this story, you know that my mother’s 100th birthday is approaching. It’s just two months away. One of the best ways I can celebrate the memories of her is to read her letters, which she mailed to me.
In this one from May 26, 2003–twenty years ago–she recounted for Nick (my older son) and me that she and my dad bought their first new car (a black, four-door Plymouth) in Texas in February 1951.
I must have just told her about Nick’s first car, a used Toyota Camry, which his mom and I had just helped him buy when he was nineteen.
Whether a letter comes from a legend of stage and screen like Carol Burnett or someone who lived a more ordinary (yet still remarkable) life like my extraordinary mother, the words and the movement of the pen on the physical page speak directly from one heart to another … far exceeding the temporary status of a text, email, or phone call.
That’s the context and beauty–the magic, really–of an authentic, handwritten letter.
This isn’t a story about cherries or ice cream sundaes–or even about the yummy gluten-free, 9 x 12-inch decadent chocolate sheet cake I baked over the weekend. (Tom and I are in the process of devouring it.)
No, it’s a tale about an unexpected, sweet, extraordinary exchange (shared from afar through snail mail) between this independent writer and a legendary actor of stage and screen, who recently celebrated a milestone birthday.
On April 27, I wrote a letter to Carol Burnett. I mailed it in a padded pouch with my book I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It is comprised of thirty-nine essays … a mix of true stories and desert fantasies … which I published in 2021.
One of them (A Custodian, A Scrub Woman, and Me) is about the special meaning The Carol Burnett Show held in our suburban St. Louis family in the 1970s.
In the story, I describe how Carol’s weekly hijinks, madcap comedic troop, and sense of humanity brought joy to my father (a depressed janitor) and me (an emerging adolescent).
On April 26, 2023–Carol’s ninetieth birthday–Tom and I watched her birthday celebration and tribute on NBC. The program resurfaced so many fabulous memories. It also prompted me to draft and send my letter (and enclose the book as a gift) to Carol through her agent.
I really didn’t expect to hear back. The act of sending the book to Carol was gratifying enough. To share my joy of watching her variety show every week decades ago.
But then, the mailed arrived today. Wedged between our SRP bill and instructions for me concerning an upcoming routine health procedure, was a handwritten letter addressed to me in beautiful penmanship.
On the upper left corner of the outside envelope just one cursive word appeared in dark blue ink: Burnett. The street address was printed on the back flap.
I carefully opened the card without ripping the corners. Inside was this personal message from that kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh. The same one who captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination more than fifty years ago.
Best. Carol Burnett … Is there anything better than that?!
In this world of incessant breaking news, a personal note from a star (who took the time to tell me she was touched by what I wrote) is just the encouragement I needed to keep writing. To tell and follow the story. To send cards and letters when I feel compelled to do so.
Because one hot evening in May–when you least expect it–you just might receive the cherry on top you never imagined.
Losses and stories come in many forms. This one is best told by my husband Tom, today’s guest blogger.
Ode to a Fig Tree
by Tom Samp
When my grandparents moved in 1972 to the Scottsdale condo where Mark and I now live, my grandfather planted a fig tree.
This tree grew and flourished. It was unique and magnificent. It produced sweet purple figs every summer.
There was never a time when this tree wasn’t a part of the condo, and of my memories of my grandparents and parents. The tree became a part of the lore of our condo complex.
Last Friday, a victim of the carpenter bees that nested and chewed slowly through the bark and the wood inside, the tree had literally cracked in half and fell bent to the ground.
The sadness was immediate and deep.
But why feel this way for a tree? It’s only wood, bark, leaves, and, in the summer, sweet purple fruit.
My mourning certainly could not compare to that felt by our friend and neighbor Aggie, whose husband Bill, also our friend, passed away during the week.
Still, it was the sentimental images and feelings I attached to the fig tree that made its death so emotional for me.
It was a part of our home that I almost took for granted. A splash of green we saw when we opened our blinds every morning.
A place for the small birds–sparrows, finches, lovebirds–to wait their turn at the bird feeder we hung right outside our window.
The shady spot where our neighbors Pat and Gary placed their lawn chairs to read or relax; and where Gary took his last breath on Good Friday, 2021.
A topic of awed comment and conversation from friends and passers-by.
An ingredient in the fig jam that our neighbor Jeannie made for us.
The February morning every year, after the leaves all fell for the winter, when Mark and I trimmed the branches way back.
The excitement each April when we saw the tiniest green buds, signifying that the tree had survived, and would again thrive.
A final remnant from my grandparent’s lives, when they pioneered to Scottsdale from Chicago in retirement.
On Saturday, after the condo landscaping crew kindly and efficiently chopped the broken tree and carried away the pieces, Mark created a container garden in its place, filled with colorful flowerpots which held desert plants and cactus.
It will be an adjustment. Maybe we will plant another tree in the fall. In the meantime, the memories will always linger.
Yesterday, after a trip to Walgreens for our latest Covid boosters, Tom and I enjoyed thirty minutes walking through Vista del Camino Park in south Scottsdale.
It’s one of many washes and greenspaces that run north and south, connecting walkways and bike paths throughout our community.
After parking our 2012 indigo Hyundai Sonata–our same faithful friend that carried us west from Illinois in July 2017 after I suffered a mild heart attack–we followed the path.
We smiled as ducks paddled through a meandering creek. It is adorned with a wild splash of lavender lilies that climb the bank in one small section.
We waved to a few disc golfers, and watched a few others wade through murky water to fish out errant throws.
We admired a thicket of tall reeds, flourishing near the northern edge of the park thanks to our wetter-than-normal winter.
But the highlight came as we made our way back to the car. We paused under this enormous eucalyptus tree. It’s one of our favorite Scottsdale nature spots–a place we have visited many times over the past nearly six years.
I was compelled to capture the strength and shade of the tree, because I wanted to savor the memory and carry it home.
In that moment, I also realized I needed to write about the tree–its enduring status–and what it represents on the fifth anniversary of my blogging adventure.
Back on May 4, 2018, when I wrote my first blog post, I was looking for a way to carve my initials into the blogosphere. (Incidentally, I never considered carving my initials into the trunk of this beautiful tree. Sadly, over the decades, vandals have had different ideas. Whatever happened to the notion of respecting property and nature?)
Anyway, through my books and blog, it has been my goal to leave a trail of my thoughts and observations for anyone who might want to follow the late-in-life stories of a sixty-five-year-old heart-attack survivor living a warmer, lighter, and gayer existence in the Sonoran Desert with his husband.
This odyssey has helped me connect with all sorts of people all around the world. To voice my opinions. To learn more about yours. And, to frequently step back to marvel at the beauty of nature in Arizona and how I desperately need it.
Perhaps most important of all, blogging has helped me stay sane, vital, and relevant. We’ve all had to look for ways to navigate a raging pandemic and try to come out the other side as relatively whole human beings.
Last night, Tom and I watched a program about Gordon Lightfoot, the prolific Canadian singer and songwriter who died recently. In one particular clip, he talked about the salvation his music provided–allowing him to work out his emotions (perhaps, his demons) through song.
My writing serves that same purpose. On my saddest, most anxious, happiest, and most triumphant days–all of it–writing down my ideas and preparing them into something artful and reasonably coherent helps me make sense of the idiosyncrasies and madness in the world. In other words, my writing helps me rise above the fray … and we all know there is plenty of fray today.
It helps me feel less afraid about a whole host of things … growing older in a more vulnerable and less safe society … seeing previously recognizable American institutions (like truth, honor, and decency) vanish … cringing as my favorite baseball team from the sepia-tone recollections of my 1960s childhood (the St. Louis Cardinals) coughs up another game and sinks further into the abyss of last place (something they have seldom seen in their rich history) … and shedding a few more tears to say goodbye to old friends and Polynesian Paradise neighbors. (Another of our desert-loving flock, Bill, died yesterday after a hard-fought battle.)
While all of this happens around me and is out of my control, I feel as if I am like the eucalyptus tree in Vista del Camino Park. Despite the increasing number of wrinkles and imperfections on my skin, I’m still strong enough to smear ointments on the rough patches and move ahead along this path I might have missed. To live, love, sing, swim, and survive. To write more poems and tell more stories.
Specifically, along the banks of whatever may come next, I’ll continue to strive to produce some degree of shade for the ones I love: my husband, my sons, my friends, my neighbors, and my followers.
It’s a sizzling Saturday in the Phoenix area … 97, 98, and climbing. Hats and water bottles for protection and hydration are in order. They are now regulation gear for the next several months.
When Tom and I left the Phoenix Farmer’s Market mid-morning–clutching a clump of chard, a few red peppers, and a bouquet of snapdragons–I could feel the crackle and pop of heat bouncing off the sidewalks. Pulsating through the air.
Tom has since trimmed the pink and magenta snapdragons. He arranged them in a cobalt-blue-glazed ceramic pitcher I treasure. My mother left it behind.
We began buying fresh-cut flowers three years ago as Covid raged and tightened its grip on the world. It was our way of bringing natural beauty into our home, while we worked to avoid the bombardment of fear and disease.
Thirty-six months later, you might say this practice has taken root and grown into a full-fledged tradition.
Certainly, there is beauty outside in the surrounding rugged buttes, startling sunsets, chirping birds, and April cactus blooms.
But this bouquet (featured on a table beneath our Brokeback Mountain poster we bought when we lived in the Chicago area) provides us with a more private splash of color. Tucked away from the heat of the day both meteorologically and metaphorically.
Thank you, Carol, for your enduring sense of humanity and a lifetime of laughs.
I’m so glad we had this time together.
A Custodian, A Scrub Woman, and Me
At 9 p.m. Central Time on Monday nights in 1970–fifty years before the contagious Covid-19 stunned our world–a kooky comedienne with a toothy smile and infectious laugh captured my twelve-year-old heart and creative imagination. Her name was Carol Burnett.
Born April 26, 1933–in the depths of the Great Depression–this legendary actor of stage and screen first tasted success with her Tony-nominated Broadway performance in Once Upon a Mattress in 1959. Soon after she appeared as a regular on The Gary Moore Show. My exposure to her madcap comedic skills began on September 11, 1967. That’s when The Carol Burnett Show debuted on CBS-TV.
Through the spring of 1971, the network ran the hour-long variety and sketch comedy format opposite two popular programs: NBC’s I Spy; and ABC’s The Big Valley. (Later in the seventies, as the show gained a larger audience and momentum, CBS moved The Carol Burnett Show into its Saturday night lineup following four other prime-time powerhouse comedies: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show.)
Back in 1970, after I finished my homework on Monday nights, the lights on stage came up around Carol and were transmitted through our Zenith color TV in suburban St. Louis. Long before I first imagined taking flight in my dusty desert time machine, she proceeded to field questions from her studio audience and lead me and thousands of other viewers across the country on a metaphoric and comedic joy ride.
Every week we sat mesmerized. We watched Carol and her creative troop–Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner … and later Tim Conway–perform their magical TV mayhem. Together they represented creative constancy in my life.
At that time, Dad worked the night shift as a custodian for a government agency in St. Louis: sweeping and mopping floors; cleaning toilets and urinals; emptying waste baskets.
It was a life of late-night drudgery my father, the ex-salesman and unfulfilled poet, couldn’t stomach and never dreamed of—especially when the rest of the world had Carol and the hilarity of her As the Stomach Turns weekly soap parody at their disposal from the comfort of their living room couches.
But like clockwork, at 9:30, Dad called during a break from his janitorial job. He craved a creative escape too. He wanted my color commentary on Carol’s show. The ringing on our kitchen phone was my cue to fill in the comedic gaps.
I stretched the curly cord into the living room and translated Carol’s hour-long variety show into something positive that might sustain him….at least for one night.
To put this in its proper personal perspective, Dad felt he was missing the important moments in life: a traditional schedule of evenings at home with his wife and children watching Carol’s shenanigans. All for the sake of a weekly paycheck and a job that clogged his ego like a stopped-up toilet.
As far as Walter Johnson was concerned, there was nothing else remotely funny about 1970. The Vietnam War was raging. Nixon was president. That was awful enough. Especially for a life-long Democrat.
I’d like to think our phone exchange during his break and my play-by-play of Carol’s comedy sketches and crazy Bob Mackie costumes he missed helped transform his melancholy spirit.
Ironically, over the course of Burnett’s career, she frequently reprised the role of a soulful scrub woman, who cleaned up after everyone else went home. It was Burnett’s tattered-but-enduring character, which became her show’s symbol of humor, heart and humanity.
Like the rotary phone that rang on our kitchen wall, I never imagined the show would one day disappear. But on March 29, 1978, after eleven seasons and 279 episodes (notwithstanding another nine episodes that aired in the fall of 1991) the curtain came down on The Carol Burnett Show.
In the mix, the Vietnam War ended. The troops came home. Nixon resigned in 1974. I graduated from high school and went on to college in 1975. Dad did his best to complete his night-shift janitorial duties.
In August of 1976, at sixty-two-years old—the age I am now—he retired from a job he despised but tolerated to contribute what he could to the well-being of our family. Remarkably, my father lived another seventeen years, despite his struggles with heart disease and depression.
“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.”
At the close of each of her shows, Carol Burnett sang this familiar tune, tugged on her left earlobe, and signed off. Evidently, it was a signal to her grandmother to let her know she was doing okay.
I loved it all. Carol’s shenanigans, her show, her sidekicks, her song, her signal, her sentiment. Dad did too. Everything she represented … her physical humor, uproarious laughter and wacky demeanor … sustained us through difficult times.
Fortunately, Carol Burnett lives on. So do the best moments from her comedy sketches on her Carol Burnett and Friends shows that appear in syndication.
In the universe of potential outcomes, I’ve discovered that an idea can spring out of nothing and lead nowhere. But, more often than not, like a hummingbird on a mission it takes flight to somewhere and lands somewhere else. It’s really an associative process of linking one idea to another.
Often this odyssey is driven by a sensory experience. Maybe it’s a familiar scent (like fresh-mowed grass) or sound (like the coo of a dove). Or a compelling image, such as a trail of hidden stairs. Or a winding creek rambling through nature with no end in sight. Or a defined space on a windy day with a few options to pursue toward a final destination.
As I writer, I’ve learned that I am at my best when I am open to all of these eventualities and possibilities. In other words, it’s better to say “yes” to an idea and let it simmer than to say “no” outright to something that might become something more.
I suppose you could call this my creative philosophy. It led me to write four memoirs and–more recently–a book of poetry. All of these are the result of committing to the practice of writing frequently. Often, I find myself composing words in my head while I’m swimming or exercising. Then, a few hours later, they travel to my fingers and land on a page as a story or poem.
One thing’s for sure. I know my life would feel relatively empty if I could never write again.
Back in January, Marc–the artistic director for the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (PHXGMC)–asked if I would develop the stories and dialogue for five fictionalized LGBTQ characters. The script would provide the framework for the chorus’ June 2023 concert, Born To Be Brave.
If you follow my blog, you know I sing with PHXGMC and have written lyrics for the chorus in the past. Both the singing and the lyrical adventure have proven to be exhilarating creative experiences. So, I immediately said “yes” to Marc’s request, and knew this new challenge would stretch me in unfamiliar ways.
Sitting before my laptop, I began to create these five individuals–composites of people I have known. With time and nurturing, they began to represent the joys, fears, hopes, dreams, uncertainties, and triumphs of what it means to be gay, bi, or transgendered living in 2023.
In March (after numerous drafts, edits and tweaks), I finalized the script for the concert. In the process, five fully defined and diverse characters–Les, Bry, Q, Gregory, and Toni–were born on the page. Since then, the roles have been cast. Rehearsals are running full tilt.
On Saturday and Sunday June 3 and 4, Les, Bry, Q, Gregory, and Toni will take the stage. They will tell their stories and connect the music at Tempe Center for the Arts.
That weekend, I will be singing with the chorus. From my tenor-two position somewhere on stage, I will watch with wonder as five other chorus members embody the five characters. They will bring them to life, tell their stories, sing their songs, and shape their journeys in their own personalized ways.
What a mysterious, organic, and fulfilling creative path this has become. With every step forward, it is leading me to places I never imagined. And, ironically, I’m discovering this new fertile ground in the desert in my sixties.
Hello literary lovers. It’s time for me to stop teasing you about my upcoming book of poetry. Book number five–A Path I Might Have Missed–is alive!
The title and meaning? I chose the title, because it is a reference to the creative odyssey I might have overlooked (but fortunately found late in life and explored through my poetry). Plus, I just like the lyrical sound of these six words strung together.
The concept? It’s a wide-ranging collection of forty-two poems, which I wrote over a period of thirty years (from age thirty-six to nearly sixty-six). My poems cover a host of universal topics–love, loss, pain, discovery, truth, and transformation–with an eye to the ever-present influence of nature in our lives.
The content? The poems run the gamut. Some are reflective, probing, mindful, and deeply personal. Others examine the challenging times we face in contemporary society. I dedicated the book to my father, Walter A. Johnson. He was an unfulfilled poet.
The format? The book is organized into six sections: buds and blooms; fog and fire; magic and music; trials and trails; water and wonder; and stones and sky. I’ve included a photo of nature with each section, images I captured while living in Illinois and Arizona.
Just click on the embedded link below to reveal the cover of the book and purchase a copy on Amazon. Also, please leave your review online. I look forward to your comments and feedback. Thank you for supporting my creative endeavors. Happy reading!