Category: United States

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. She will open the card and presents we sent her soon. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping over breakfast from the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our individual ways to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–this grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That was the turning point.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Rain

On the first morning of autumn, September’s long-forgotten-and-seldom-seen sister dropped in from beyond the buttes.

Unreliable rain interrupted an eight o’clock swim. She had ghosted us all summer. Promised her return. Teased us with phantom forecasts.

She stayed for ten minutes. Long enough to soothe freckled shoulders, heal parched souls, and cast a creosote cocktail over the palms.

Her intoxicating personality was the change we needed to silence the sameness. To swim and dance again under the clouds of our desert dreams.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

Nineteen

September 11, 2001, began as a sparkling, late-summer day in Mount Prospect, Illinois. It was the Chamber-of-Commerce kind I wanted to bottle and save to replace a coming cold-and-dreary, twenty-four hours in February, when Chicago snowdrifts and endless grey skies surely would pile up on our long driveway.

Carefree Kirk and I left our home on North Forest Avenue shortly after 7 a.m. Ten minutes later, my twelve-year-old son skipped out the passenger side of our green Saturn sedan, slammed the door, turned his head, and waved goodbye as he scampered toward the entrance of Lincoln Junior High School.

Neither of us knew the magnitude of the destruction, numbness, mayhem and tragedy that was coming within the hour that day. Horrific images from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania–cities forever fused by the news of the planes that crashed there and thousands of innocent lives lost.

It’s been nineteen years since that defining series of moments: shattered glass, toppling towers, and gut-wrenching grief–even for those of us fortunate not to have lost a loved one in the madness.

It feels longer than that to me, because during those nearly two decades we’ve endured a heaping helping of natural disasters (remember Hurricane Katrina?) and social unrest through the viewfinder of an unrelenting news cycle.

A generation of children born in 2001 have since graduated from high school and gone off to college, begun trade school or entered the work force. Certainly, they can Google what happened on September 11, 2001, but they don’t have the emotions of the moment to draw from or the experience of witnessing the deep sadness and disarray as the images cascaded across our TVs on a loop.

Kirk is thirty-one years old now. A school counselor. Living in Chicago. Guiding children (in person from behind Plexiglass partitions) through the pitfalls and dramas of their evolving lives. This is their tragedy of now: a global pandemic, a fractured republic, a nation on fire. This is their stream of difficult defining moments.

No matter what transpires on September 11, 2020, it will shape the choices they make, the lives they lead, the stories of survival they tell, the votes they cast one day–at eighteen, nineteen and beyond–as the next generation trailing in queue opens its eyes to a new day.

The Pursuit of Happiness

In late October 1997, I traveled from Chicago to Cleveland to co-facilitate a diversity training course for managers of a large financial institution.

Charles was the lead consultant on the project. We had teamed up before. He was black and straight. I was white and gay.

I felt inspired, watching him begin the session, explain the merits of an inclusive workforce, and preach the business rationale for embracing diversity.

The idea was to challenge the bank’s managers to respectfully acknowledge and maximize the differences of employees: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, religious and cultural beliefs.

By maximizing the mosaic of its differences, the company would be better equipped to create a more collaborative, welcoming culture that would produce happier employees who could more effectively understand and reflect the needs of diverse customers. I believed every bit of it. I still do.

Charles’ dark skin color was obvious, but perhaps my sexual orientation wasn’t. I typically didn’t divulge my gayness, unless the training warranted it.

At one point, a male manager stood up. He said he believed gay people were immoral. He thought they didn’t deserve respect or equal treatment.

The room of forty managers and two facilitators froze. Somewhere inside, despite my anger, I mustered the words and focus to break the silence and challenge his thinking. Essentially, I said something like the following:

“I’m gay and I don’t believe I’m immoral. I can assure you there are lots of gay employees you work with you, who feel the same way. If they don’t feel respected here, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.”

The manager sat down and mumbled a few comments under his breath. The training continued. Charles smiled. He took the training reigns and proceeded without missing a beat.

It was a watershed moment for me in my personal development and professional life to have the opportunity to defend myself–all LGBTQ people, really–and feel the support of a trusted colleague.

In 1997, I never imagined that one day I would live in a country where it would be legal for two men or two women to marry each other. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to marry the man I love. But, remarkably, it happened.

On September 6, 2014, Tom and I were married before about sixty of our family and close friends. It was a shiny, crisp afternoon in Illinois.

Our sisters walked us down the aisle. Though she was ailing, Tom’s mother made it. She wore the paisley silk scarf we bought for her in Florence, Italy.

Tom and I were surrounded by sunflowers, smiles and a few tears that day. Six years have passed. Though all four of our parents have been gone for five years, with every passing season–with every highlight, loss or moment of vulnerability–our love has grown deeper. I’m thankful for that.

Despite marriage equality in the United States, we now live in a country with a president who believes it’s “un-American” to be different. A few days ago he directed the White House Office of Management and Budget to prevent federal agencies from spending money on diversity training.

I don’t know where this chapter in American history will lead us, but I have faith this dark period will end soon. We are a country founded on the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of its people.

Even with all of the hateful comments of the past four years, I think the majority of Americans still believe in freedom and equality. We’ll find out in November.

September Morn

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I was ready to turn my back on August. Forty widths of the pool under a dramatic partly cloudy sky helped me kiss the hottest month ever in the Valley of the Sun goodbye.

September began swimmingly.

In the 1960s on the first of September, Dad would shout “September morn” gleefully when my sister Diane and I walked into our suburban St. Louis kitchen for breakfast. It was a greeting his grandmother bestowed on him as a child. He loved it so much he embraced the tradition. Years later Mom adopted the practice when she woke us from our teenage slumber.

Dad thought September was the most beautiful month of the year. I believed him. The mornings and nights were cooler. The afternoon shadows longer. The hues and possibilities deeper.

If you followed September’s signs, they led you to the land of beginnings. Back-to-school shopping with Mom. A fresh supply of spiral notebooks, unopened boxes of crayons, striped shirts, blue jeans, and high-top Keds from Sears. A new teacher with new ideas in a new classroom. A mix of familiar and new-in-town classmates.

As a kid, I always envied Diane. She had a late September birthday. In my crew-cut brain, I fused it with the happy memory of a rhyme we chanted together: “September wears a party dress of lavender and gold.”

Even at sixty-three, seeing the first light in the Sonoran Desert on this September morn made me giddy. As Tom and I glided through the water,  back and forth across the pool, it helped me to realize that newness is never far away on the horizon.

Sometimes we just have to search a little longer to find September’s first light peeking through the clouds.

My Cup of Tea

I used to think I was purely a coffee guy. That a cup of tea wasn’t my cup of tea. But I’ve changed. Now I enjoy a cup or two of hot coffee and a cup or two of hot tea every day. Not simultaneously, of course.

Coffee (with non-dairy creamer) is my early morning drink. What Tom typically and Mark less frequently brews to stir our bodies and revive our brains. Whereas tea with honey in the morning, early afternoon or in the evening–like yoga–cues my deepest thoughts, centers my soul, renews my sense of hope, and quiets my agitation.

If it’s the right kind of herbal tea, it also clears my sinuses. Tom and I discovered and bought a great allergy and sinus tea (sold by the SW Herb Shop & Gathering Place in Mesa, Arizona) several months ago while shopping the outdoor aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market.

The mild melding of ingredients includes elder, echinacea, peppermint, dandelion, goldenrod, and orange peel … stuff I usually see in a field or orchard, but now they gather and grace themselves in my tea cup.

Recently, I ran out of this special blend, but was able to order it on line. Miraculously, despite the recent United States Postal Service drama, it arrived in the mail a few days later. It’s such a relief, to have my new stash. To enjoy a few cups daily to counteract the latest flair up of allergies. Something I never experienced in the Midwest, but do in the Sonoran Desert.

I’ve decided herbal tea is a more expansive and introspective drink than coffee. While it opens my sinuses I also think it frees my mind, heart and creative sensibilities. If you’ve imagined me drinking a cup as I compose this story, you’re right. In fact, without my cup of tea today, I doubt I would have written anything at all. My focus would have stayed on my stuffy sinuses.

Between sentences and sips of tea, I’m reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This tiny-but-mighty book was a gift to Tom and me from a friend. First published in 1986, it’s one of the most accessible, descriptive and personal books I’ve read about committing to a practice of writing, overcoming doubts, and “freeing the writer within.”

It’s also filled with bits of wisdom and humanity. Guidance that I need today to cleanse myself after reading about the latest vitriolic display from the White House. (Tom and I protected our sanity and blood pressure this week by not watching any of the Republican National Convention antics live.)

In an attempt to share some of the goodness from Natalie’s book, here’s a nugget from page 97, where she talks about embracing both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of life. (For instance, drinking coffee or tea vs. living through a global pandemic.)

“We are all interwoven and create each other’s universes. When one person dies out of his time, it affects us all. We don’t live for ourselves; we are interconnected. We live for the earth, for Texas, for the chicken we ate last night that gave us its life, for our mother, for the highway and the ceiling and the trees. We have a responsibility to treat ourselves kindly; then we will treat the world in the same way.”

Given the state of our world right now, perhaps Natalie’s words will resonate with you as much as me. Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a fully-entrenched-and-sometimes-jaded one or somewhere in between, perhaps her gem of a book will inspire your best creative instincts.

Perhaps it will be your cup of tea.

Birdland 2020

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When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.

He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.

“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.

Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.

Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.

The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.

Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a  passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.

Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.

All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.

While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.

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Almost as If

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Personal experience tells me that the pressure and immediacy of a frightful, life-changing moment–for instance, a mild heart attack accompanied by breathlessness and radiating left shoulder pain while traveling cross country–can make it virtually impossible to imagine a longer view, a brighter sky, an optimistic outcome.

But with the passage of three years and one month (living inside a 2017-to-2020 cradle of colluding Russian-nesting-doll years, arguably the most tumultuous and troublesome period in American history since the Civil War), I find myself crossing a metaphorical threshold into a more promising personal dimension without an obstruction in the foreground.

This realization flooded my sixty-three-year old brain and body on August 18, 2020 as I scribbled sentences on the lined pages of my emerald-colored spiral notebook. The inspiration for my ramblings was prompted by a visit with Dr. B, my cardiologist, the day before.

***

August 17 began swimmingly. Forty laps alongside Tom in our condo pool, followed closely by a thirty-minute session (yoga for writers with Adriene on YouTube) in front of our flat-screen TV. The motion and stretching were successful in quieting my mind before an 11:10 a.m. appointment with Dr. B.

At 10:30, I stepped out on my own in my flip flops into one-hundred-degree heat. Opened the driver’s side to our indigo Sonata, started the engine, and tapped the windshield wipers to remove a thin layer of grit from a dust storm the night before.

It was a short and simple journey into Old Town Scottsdale, but one I’d stewed over since a August 5 echocardiogram orchestrated by Laney on the other side of the Valley of the Sun. It was her job to test the condition and pumping capability of my heart. Glub glub … glub glub … glub glub.

Some of the sting surrounding this follow-up appointment had already subsided on August 10 or 11, because a nurse in my doctor’s office emailed saying they had uncovered “no emergent concerns” from the procedure. Dr. B would discuss my course of care moving forward at a August 17 consultation.

Still, like any once-burned patient with a history of heart disease or inquisitive journalist digging for the full scoop, I wondered if there were more variables they weren’t ready to share with me. More I needed to fret over. The phrase “course of care” left too much room–too many what ifs–for my unbridled imagination and anxiety.

Like many other moments in life, the hardest part was waiting.

***

Once I arrived at the three-story office building, I parked facing east, slid our silver sunshade across the windshield, climbed three flights of stairs in an outdoor atrium rather than trusting a slow elevator, checked in at the front desk of Cardiovascular Consultants, Ltd,, and waited to be summoned.

“120/80 … couldn’t be more normal,” Dr. B’s nurse checked and confided my blood pressure, once I was situated in a straight-backed chair. As she left me alone in the room, I thought of Tom and all we had endured and accomplished in the previous thirty-seven months together.

Selling our home in Illinois. Saying goodbye to family, friends and neighbors. Moving ourselves and our essential possessions seventeen hundred miles west. Scurrying into the emergency room of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis on our sixtieth birthday. Resuming our journey four days later with the help of a capable medical team in the city where I was born.

Buying new furniture for the living room of our Arizona condo. Traveling to Ireland and feeling the air rush through my hair on an open-air Dublin bus. Helping Nick recover from a serious knee injury on a basketball court. Cultivating new friendships in Arizona.

Finding new creative outlets and avenues to sing, write and screen our favorite movies. Climbing to the top of a church in Munich, Germany to behold Bavaria without a worry. Gazing out the window of a Vienna cafe and soaking up the baroque splendor inside The Ring.

Bonding with cardiologists, dermatologists and gastroenterologists. Standing between my thirty-something sons at the Local Author Book Sale at the Scottsdale Public Library right before COVID-19 shuttered the world. Surviving the chaos and fear of a global pandemic and a misguided presidency. Doing our best to stay connected to family and friends. Escaping to the mountains of Flagstaff to breathe the pine-scented air.

All of it, and the memory of my mother and father (both long gone, but never far away) flashed through my mind’s eye in a five-minute window as I stared at the blue and green tiles in an innocuous space waiting for Dr. B.

After he knocked and entered, he delivered the news I had waited for. More than I  hoped for actually. Certainly, more than I imagined. He glanced at the July 2017 images from St. Louis and compared them with those of August 2020 in Scottsdale. He told me the Arizona echocardiogram showed my heart is functioning normally.

Though both of us wore masks, I’m sure he could see the amazement and joy in my eyes when he said, “It’s almost as if you never had a heart attack … I don’t need to see you until another year passes, unless something comes up.”

***

As I left Dr. B’s office, relief flooded my body. I texted the news to Tom and told him I was on my way home. We would celebrate with a mini-staycation at the Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale, a vintage mid-century, sun-drenched resort flecked in tangerine and aqua. As good fortune would have it, August 17 was the day we met in 1996.

For two days and nights, we were desert rats living the high life. It was almost as if none of the trauma of three years before had happened. But we knew it had. Now we could put it further behind us in the distance of the palms in the Grand Canyon State.

All of us hope for a longer view, a lengthier life with greater possibilities. But it’s out of our control. The best we can do is love more. Hate less. Eat right. Exercise regularly. Listen to the advice of our doctors. Be grateful for today. Endure the heat of a desert day. Embrace the twilight of our fading hours. Deliberate over dazzling sunsets.

Enjoy the luscious fruits of our lives as they appear without ever really knowing what tomorrow will bring.

 

Last Light

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“The desert, to those who do listen, is more likely to provoke awe than to invite conquest.”

Joseph Wood Krutch–author, naturalist, and conservationist

Quote adapted from The Voice of the Desert, 1954

Photo of Desert Botanical Garden by Mark Johnson, 2014