As we travel highways and backroads, we gather and stack our stones. We accumulate memories of lovers and friends, tranquility and turmoil, balance and incongruity, strength and vulnerability.
Our teetering stones represent the yin and yang of our natural existence. Without them, we would have nothing to account for our discoveries, our disappointments, our victories, our losses, our presence.
Gaze beyond the earth to the cerulean sky. It lightens our load. The blueness invites us to forget the gravity of our stones, to aspire to possibilities loftier, to imagine peace over the weight of our past.
The COVID-19 traumas that spun endlessly in 2020 and early 2021 have spawned a mountain of stories bursting with pain and uncertainty. But rays of clarity and creativity have begun to emerge as we try to make sense of the pandemic that will forever shape those of us who survived it.
I devoted part of my latest book to Coronaville–that crazy town we still live in–because I think it’s important to remember the fear and examine it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. What a shame it would be if we didn’t learn from the madness this plague has perpetrated. Here is a sampling of what I wrote one year ago this week:
Monday, June 15, 2020 began with congestion in my chest, mild nausea, and an occasional headache. I did not have a temperature, sore throat, or experience a loss of sense of smell or taste that may accompany the dreaded virus.
Nonetheless, I was worried enough to call my doctor, who prescribed a chest x-ray at a nearby diagnostic center that afternoon and a COVID-19 test the next morning at an HonorHealth urgent care facility.
Fortunately, my chest x-ray came back normal. There was no sign of pneumonia or any abnormalities. More than likely, I was dealing with a sinus condition or allergy to an air-borne culprit than the dreaded COVID-19. But still I waited. I was afraid the other shoe might drop.
On Tuesday, I imagined the desert dust from an adjacent construction site–fumes from our recent bedroom painting project or particles I had ingested from the smoke of a wildfire that raged in the hills sixty miles northeast of us–could be the problem. But I worried about the worst as Tom and I drove to Mesa for the swab test at 11 a.m.
To read the rest of the story (and all thirty-nine essays set against the warm and rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert) click on the link below and purchase a copy of my book in paperback or Kindle.
I’ve been feeling murky lately–grumpy too. It’s been one of those uncertain periods in life. We all have them.
Two weeks ago, the engine in our nine-year-old Sonata seized. It went kaput as Tom was returning from the gym, initiating a domino effect of frustrating phone calls and texts, AAA tows, car rentals, dealer discussions, loaner agreements, missed connections, and moving deadlines.
Fortunately, Tom is okay and our car is still under warranty … barely. (Ten years or 100,000 miles.) Our odometer read 98,500 when everything shut down. The engine was replaced and paid for by Hyundai. We picked up our rejuvenated car yesterday. It’s now running smoothly.
Despite the relatively fortunate personal and financial outcome, my patience has worn thin. My creativity is scattered. It’s as if a Sonoran wind blew in, swept my disparate ideas (literal and figurative scraps of paper on my desk) into the sky, and scorched them into a cloud of embers, precipitated by a drought-induced Arizona fire. (Yes, it’s fire season here again.)
As a result, my writing schedule is off. My temper is short. The temperature outside is rising fast in the Phoenix area (110 degrees here we come).
Oh, book sales have fallen off the map. Do people read anymore? This is one of those moments when I need to remind myself of the joy I felt in March when I was basking in the publishing afterglow (not the flames of a hillside fire) of reading passages from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree before a group of thirty-five friends and neighbors.
Through it all, I’m aware I am living in the undefined space between writing projects. If you are also a writer, you know what that feels like. It feels like crap. Why? Because writing (for us, at least) serves as a personal compass, a guiding light, an organizing principle that keeps us feeling passionate, centered, connected, relevant, and whole.
Now that I’ve had a chance to whine a little, I should also tell you that a new possible creative project has begun to surface. It may materialize this fall. At this point, I don’t want to jinx it by describing it any further.
Instead, I’m better served by resting my brain a little, praying for monsoon rains in Arizona, and focusing on a much-needed, ten-day vacation/road trip to and from Montana, which Tom and I will embark on in a few weeks.
Of course, we couldn’t go anywhere a year ago. But, because we are fully vaccinated, we’ll be able to explore and absorb the majestic scenery of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho with a clear conscience and visit friends in Bozeman, Montana.
I wasn’t in the crowd on June 5, 1971–fifty years ago today–when Six Flags Over Mid-America first opened its gates in the rolling countryside of Eureka, Missouri.
But I remember the feeling of unbridled anticipation when I read about it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and saw the coverage of the grand opening on local TV stations. I wondered, what would this new amusement park feel like, smell like, taste like?
Sometime in late June or early July came my inaugural visit. As I skipped through the turnstiles of the gleaming attraction with friends, I remember the exuberance I felt. It was like running out the doors on the last day of school and discovering a carefree, sparkling universe on the outskirts of St. Louis … all rolled into one.
We raced from ride to ride and show to show, devoured fried chicken and strawberry popsicles, cooled off in the splash of the Log Flume, and tossed our arms in the air when the River King Mine Train (the park’s first rollercoaster) left the station. How we screeched when the bottom of our stomachs dropped on the final plunge.
In the summer of ’71, I had no clue or premonition that I would actually learn how to drive that same rollercoaster three years later as a fresh-scrubbed seasonal Six Flags employee … or that the experience would become a metaphor and inspiration for a light-hearted book I would write in 2016 about the ups and downs of my Missouri life in the 1960s and 70s. But life is full of surprises. Both of those things happened.
On this fiftieth anniversary, I still recall the fun of those more innocent days as a guest and the thrill of landing my first job at Six Flags Over Mid-America in 1974 … not to mention the twists and turns that would follow for the next three summers as a rollercoaster operator.
As a tribute to the history of Six Flags (and all the fun and energetic cohorts who worked beside me in the mid 70s), I want to share To Chase Another Thrill. It’s a poem I wrote in June 2016, which captures the feeling of manning the rollercoaster controls. It first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator in 2017.
I am the purveyor of ups and downs, for an hour or so each day,
Standing high above the crowd, ready to guide your way.
I study the nearby dashboard, flustered faces in a row,
Itching for a two-minute joy ride, with others persuaded to go.
I see the bars locked tightly, the crew is stepping back,
Leaving the station to squeals on wheels, it’s time to ride the track.
I know just what will happen, the train will climb three lifts,
Rounding bends and taking falls, rising from the dips.
I hear the train returning, it’s climbing up the hill,
Applying brakes and coming home, to chase another thrill.
This is my domain, though at times I barely recognize the land that met the sky on the wings of my ancestors. Now it is divided into parcels and corridors of parched earth and concrete that channel swirling desert winds.
I crave missing monsoon rains. I grieve for the fallen in war and peace. I pause to observe the pain, pestilence, and progress. I wince over apathy and shortsightedness. I am blind to none of it.
Call me a scavenger or opportunist if you will. I am imperfect like you. I am a survivor, a symbol of what is right and wrong. I was nearly gone and forgotten. Now I am standing guard over the mystery and mayhem that is my home.
It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.
But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.
As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.
I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.
Life is brimming with duality: birth and death; joy and sorrow; old and new; calmness and turbulence.
In my nearly sixty-four years, I’ve learned we need both the void of darkness and the energy of light–the yin and the yang of contrary forces–to breathe new meaning into our human and fragile existence.
In the confines of spring 2021, both ends of life’s emotional spectrum have crossed my path. First came the sudden death of Gary, an elderly neighbor. He passed in front of our condo, in my arms on April 2.
The calendar told me it was Good Friday, but I felt only sadness and profound disbelief that day. It didn’t matter that Gary was eighty-six years old and declining rapidly. Exits are seldom easy. I prefer new beginnings.
Six weeks later, I got one. Grief was counterbalanced by joy. Something new and happy happened on Tuesday, May 18, to compensate for Good Friday’s trauma.
The wave of anticipation began a few days before when our friend Brian called Tom to enlist our help. He asked us to join him and girlfriend Bernadette at the Desert Botanical Garden.
But there was a twist … something new waiting beyond the something old of simply sharing coffee and stories with our thirty-something friends. Brian wanted us to capture his surprise marriage proposal to Bernadette on camera.
Tuesday morning came. We met at the garden entrance at 10 o’clock as planned. After thirty minutes of light conversation at a shaded table on Ullman Terrace near a gathering of quail, the four of us walked down a garden path.
Brian and Bernadette walked a few steps ahead. He paused, lowered to one knee, and popped the question under the pink blossoms of an ironwood tree.
From behind her neon-green-framed sunglasses, Bernadette beamed and said “yes”. She slid the ring on her finger and they embraced.
Bernadette reached out to hold her future husband and clutch his curly locks. All the while, surrounded by succulents and saguaro cacti, Tom and I snapped photos from six feet away. Boundless joy filled the air.
After ten minutes passed, we walked toward the garden exit together. Tom and I told Bernadette and Brian we wanted to give them some private time in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
Before we departed, the four of us spotted a colorful lizard. As Brian’s and Bernadette’s hearts raced– and Tom and I recounted our gratitude for simply being there–the foot-long reptile sat motionless on a rock.
I want to believe it was nature’s way of saying, “Be still with this moment. Let it last a while in the quiet of the garden.”
Like this image, life has been more than a little blurry for the past fifteen months. I have tried to keep smiling, but the outrageous number of deaths due to COVID-19 (more than 580,000 in the United States at this point), endless Zoom interactions, mind-numbing-worry-filled hours, and angst-ridden social and political moments have made it difficult at times.
Add in the daily masked encounters in contact-free zones to protect ourselves. There have been too many of those to enumerate, but through 2020 and the first four months of 2021 I never questioned the need to wear a face covering, though it certainly created an emotional barrier to contend with.
What would you have said if I told you this on January 20, 2021, (the day Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office)?
“By the middle of May more than 47 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 37 percent of all Americans (more than 120 million including my husband and me) will be fully vaccinated. Oh, and CDC masking guidelines will be substantially relaxed as a result of the greater numbers of protected citizens. For instance, if you live in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I do, you will be free to exercise in a community gym without wearing a mask on May 15.”
You probably would have responded like this:
“You’re crazy, Johnson!! Stop building my hopes and spreading unrealistic half-glass-full-but-dreamy conspiracy theories.”
But I’m not crazy. Think about what we have accomplished in less than four months as a nation. Where would we be without the vaccines, a compassionate and hard-working president, and science? Nowhere.
I realize there is a sizable chunk of Americans who will never get vaccinated, and as a result we will likely not reach herd immunity. If you are an anti-vaxer, it is your choice not to get the shots, just as it was mine to consent to receive the inoculations.
However, I see the “no vaccines for me” choice as a short-sighted and selfish one. I view the approved, no-charge COVID-19 vaccines as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. (If you’ve played Monopoly, you get my drift.)
Without the vaccines (two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for me) I would have felt forever afraid and vulnerable. I would have continued to be worried about my well-being, not to mention paranoid about spreading the virus to others. All of us would be going nowhere … figuratively and literally.
Now, with the vaccine coursing through my veins, I am happier, freer, and less afraid than I’ve been in fifteen months. I can plan a trip with my husband to visit friends in Montana this summer, sing again unmasked in the same space with my friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, and work out at Club SAR, the community gym I frequent, without wearing a covering over my face. None of that would have happened without the amazing science of epidemiology and vaccines.
Best of all, blurry or not, with the boosting benefit of two shots in my right arm and some mild discomfort for a few days, I get to see the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances, and mingle with them again. That’s something I have missed dearly.
As Scottsdale temperatures rise each May, crowds disperse. Locals breathe more easily, sip hazelnut coffee under eaves, and swim morning laps before triple digits roll in on a red hot Arizona day.
If you prefer a circus of disconnected distractions, stand by. Watch a tag team of fertile mourning doves feed their young. Wince as construction workers jackhammer in the name of progress over the western wall. Chuckle as a wily neighborhood cat scatters a chorus of squawking crows under a tangelo tree.
For today’s headliner, none of these sideshow performances matter. From her inconspicuous back patio stage, one determined desert rose enters the center ring. She dazzles passersby with her first double red bloom of the season.
It’s near the end of Mother’s Day 2021, but I couldn’t let this day pass without paying tribute to Helen Johnson, my resilient mother. Today, as I puttered in the garden–a universal place she loved–and planted impatiens in a shady spot under the eaves of my Scottsdale home, I channeled memories of her. Here’s a little story about the two of us.
Mom was 74 and I was 40 on Mother’s Day 1998. This is one of my favorite photos of us, standing outside her south suburban St. Louis home that day twenty-three years ago. It captures the essence of the lifelong bond and love between us. As her edges softened in her seventies and eighties and my appreciation for her vulnerabilities, strengths, and wisdom grew in my forties and fifties, our relationship deepened.
What I’ve learned since her death in 2013 (and my father’s in 1993) is that our relationships with our parents don’t end when they die. They evolve. We carry bittersweet and tender memories of them with us everywhere (in my case from North Carolina and Missouri to Illinois and Arizona).
I no longer think of my mother every day, but her gifts are part of the fabric of my life in the Sonoran Desert (a place she never visited) in a far less obvious way than they were back in St. Louis in 1998. For that reason, she appears in all four of my books. Sometimes as true reflections of the person she was; other times in fictional flights of fancy.
As long as I’m around, I will carry with me her love of gardening, impatience with ineptitude, kindness for neighbors, thirst for knowledge, respect for the written word, and commitment to family. In good times and bad, I am forever grateful for the legacy of love my mother left me and the path she provided to follow with my two sons.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, who work each day to make a positive difference in the lives of their children.