The Ice Plant Bloometh

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This catastrophic day began innocently and pleasantly enough. At 8:55 a.m. Tom and I pulled up to my dermatologist’s office. I returned for a follow-up visit with Dr. R … seven weeks after the last of my twenty superficial radiotherapy treatments designed to heal my left hand.

After I waved to Amanda, his assistant who I bonded with three times a week for the second half of December and two-thirds of January, Dr. R. scanned my left hand and pronounced it healed. Sweet relief. Happily, his recommended course of action eradicated the evil invasive squamous cancer cells that set up shop in November.

Tom and I celebrated with a walk along the nearby cross-cut canal. We inhaled the desert air, saturated with the scent of blooming orange blossoms. At one point, we crossed paths with an Australian shepherd named Ozzie and his walker. (The Baby Boomers in us joked and wondered if her name might be Harriet.) No matter. The adorable tri-colored pooch had one brown and one blue eye. I should have known the day would deliver mixed results.

The tide turned. I received an ominous text from a friend. He’s a healthcare professional. Over the weekend, one of his clients tested positive for COVID-19.  I texted back. “I’m here for you. Let me know if you need or want to talk.” Earlier in the day, I sent a similar message of support and encouragement to another friend, quarantined in his home with symptoms and a horrible week-old story about his inability to get tested in a broken healthcare system.

As the day progressed, I worried about them both. I tried to maintain some sense of normalcy. Tom and I–teetering on a tightrope between our colossal canal experience and the pandemic realities of our day–squeezed in a game of Scrabble at a local coffee shop.

Though it may sound ill-advised, a trip to our community gym followed to release our anxiety and strengthen our hearts and surrounding muscles. We wiped down the machines before and after our workouts, kept our distance from a smattering of other familiar patrons, and slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

This is what a global pandemic will do for you. Chaotic and cataclysmic. Stunning and surreal. News you can’t deny or escape. A hoarding society of empty shelves of toilet paper. An ill-equipped nation trying to flatten the curve. An under-qualified-and-over-inflated president (that’s the kindest description I can offer).

More bad news every moment. Rising numbers of infections and death. Endless lists of school and work closings. Restaurant and bar closings. Church and gym closings. No yoga classes for the next three Fridays. No in-person choral rehearsals on Tuesdays with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus until April 5. We’ll try singing via telecommuting. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of its season to no earlier than mid-May. That’s the least of our problems, though we would welcome the late-arriving national pastime.

Of course, these are all sound decisions. Life and death decisions. Declarations to hunker down and distance ourselves–groups of less than ten only please–as more than ten “leaders” stand in two rows in front of common microphones.  A plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped another 3,000 points before the bell finally rang today.

What does it all mean? We’re told the worst is yet to come. This feels awful enough. Indeed, most Americans would prefer to forget March 16, 2020. But we’d better remember it when we vote in our general election in November.

***

Better news later in the afternoon here in the desert. A ray of natural beauty appeared outside our front door. Hopefully, a hand-delivered harbinger of love. Delivered by the month of March.

The ice plant bloometh.

 

To Bloom in Place

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Oh profoundly-prickly-and-possibly-prophetic pandemic,

Though our protectors should have prepared painstakingly,

We plan to protect our petals from your thorny problems,

We promise to follow nature’s prescription to bloom in place.

Gone But Still Giving

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When my mother died in January 2013, she left behind a little money in an account. It was earmarked for charitable purposes only.

Over the years, my sister and I distributed small amounts to organizations in her name. Some money went to children’s charities; other stipends supported research to eradicate dreadful diseases.

With time, the account dwindled. The fund faded to the point where fees were beginning to gobble up money that would be better used by a charity. Seeing the dollars decline was something like witnessing the effects of the macular degeneration that clouded Helen Johnson’s vision late in life.

Today, after processing the final grant from her account, I imagined my mother sitting outside with me on a spring day in Wheaton, Illinois, where she lived her last few years. The daffodils bloomed as she modeled her freshly painted nails. It was a luxury she wouldn’t have dreamed of earlier in life … born of the rural South, a child of the Great Depression that left most families in turmoil, scraping to make ends meet.

Somehow, Helen survived all that. She left North Carolina at age twenty-two with two friends. She found a job in St. Louis, Missouri, just as World War II was ending. She met Walter Johnson. They married and brought two children into the world.

Helen went back to work after Walter had a heart attack in the fall of 1962. The next few years were lean ones for our family. Over time, Helen built a career and found ways to keep us afloat.

She and Walter had a tough time of it, but somehow they managed to stay together. They scrimped and saved. She retired in 1987. He died in 1993. She lived on, nurturing her family and flowers. Eventually, she said goodbye at 89.

Now, here I sit. Remembering my wise, kind and resilient mother. Knowing that the money she left behind will put food on the tables of hungry families in 2020, support the planting of shade-producing trees, grant a wish for a needy child, care for healthier hearts, and allow a few disadvantaged citizens to raise their voices proudly in an uncertain world.

I have no doubt Helen is smiling.

 

Three Writers and a Birthday

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.

S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.

On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.

But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.

Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.

But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.

During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.

There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.

***

This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.

As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.

Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.

But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.

They are all with me on my journey.

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No Drone Zone

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I never want to be that guy. The bore who tells the same stories at a party. The one you can’t escape in the corner of the room when all you want to do is wipe that silly-and-smug smile off his face. More specifically, the writer who drones on about subjects that don’t matter to anyone but himself.

I certainly wonder from time to time if the things I have to say are truly meaningful to others. If my synchronistic, slice-of-life stories and observations about universal subjects like family, fatherhood, friendship and flowers–not to mention love, loss, and late-in-life dreams and adventures–are fresh enough for followers or those who happen to read one of my books or stumble upon this page.

I’m not sure this classifies as a fear. But at the very least I have my creative doubts and vulnerabilities. I imagine it’s a condition other writers experience. Particularly when they’ve been diligently honing their craft for a while (i.e., written and published three books and nearly two years of bi-weekly blog posts) and strive to remain relevant in a culture that too often tweets and discards people, their ideas and historical perspectives more quickly than a wrapper around a fast-food sandwich.

Who knew this entire thread of creative questioning would be stimulated by a hike this morning in Papago Park? Where Tom and I amassed ten-thousand steps by eleven o’clock and a “No Drone Zone” sign caught my eye before today’s round of alliteration and wordplay could begin to take flight.

It was all the confirmation I needed. That remote-controlled, pilot-less aircraft or missiles are prohibited in this quiet corner of Phoenix (home to the nearby Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo), where rugged buttes are patrolled by bighorn sheep.

That every book or post that bears my name is prepared with love, authenticity and good intentions.

That I’m doing my best to honor the meaningful and meaningless moments here in the “No Drone Zone” of my post-Midwestern life.

 

 

March On

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Retreat from impending pandemics, pundit prognostications and presidential prattle. Play in the garden. Greet the grace of nature. Gaze at gliding coyotes and giant cardons. Grant Sunday succulents a proper home. Gather and savor southern-facing light. Stand tall and shine in the darkness. Apply aloe. Ease the pain. March on.

The Island of Misfit Boys

I’m not a sociologist, psychologist, psychiatrist or cultural anthropologist. Just an observant, sensitive and reasonably intelligent sixty-two-year-old gay American male author, who is concerned about the plight of our boys and young men.

I should also tell you I am an ardent supporter of gender equality. Equal rights. Equal opportunity. Equal pay for the same job. In fact, I think women are at least as qualified as men to capably fulfill the requirements of most any position… including that of President of the United States, though–regrettably–we have yet to elect our first female Commander-in-Chief.

During the course of my thirty-four-year communication career, many of my best bosses and mentors were smart, savvy and successful women. I had a few decent male managers too, but looking back, it’s the women from who I learned the most. They were the ones who encouraged me to take on projects that enhanced my skills, rewarded me for my contributions, and made the greatest positive difference in my career.

I don’t have any empirical data to draw from, but now that I have more time to ponder the “what ifs” of life, I’m seeing a disturbing trend. In the past few years, I’ve encountered a disproportionate number of bright young men (straight and gay) in their twenties and thirties, who are lonely, disenfranchised and struggling. Fighting for their lives as they face their addictions. Trying to launch and differentiate authentic lives in a society that still clings to narrow views of masculinity and offers few accessible male role models.

What worries me is the lack of meaningful structure and focus I see in the lives of young American males. (By the way, in my mind, a passion for fantasy football leagues, video games or binge drinking doesn’t count. As a rule, I don’t view these activities as life affirming or mind expanding, though they can be fun diversions.)

I was discussing this topic with my husband and a close male friend recently, and suddenly found myself transported back to sixth grade in suburban St. Louis. I had just received a writing award from the Daughters of the American Revolution for a piece I had written about the Stamp Act. I don’t recall the focus of my paper. Just the fact that I received recognition for my writing.

I remember that most of the other award recipients were girls. Somewhere in a dog-eared scrapbook from 1968, there is a photograph of all of us standing with our adoring teacher. She, my parents and the female students were proud of our accomplishments. But the other boys? Not so much. The feeling I got from them was:

“Writing is for girls. It’s not something a real boy should be proud of. What really matters is your athletic prowess, your ability to tie Boy Scout knots or cut and polish hard wood with your hands in shop class.”

I realize how ridiculous this sounds, but the feelings that stung my ten-year-old psyche were real. They were also never heard or validated.

As a sixth-grader, what price did I pay for internalizing the notion that writing was a less-than-masculine endeavor? Did this and other similar experiences discourage me from pursuing a literary life until my mid fifties? When did it become uncool for boys to be smart?

In 2020, could it be that as we’re beginning to realize and remedy all the ways American girls have been undervalued in our society, we’re still duping our boys and young men into believing that reading and writing are “softer skills” that might lead someone to suspect they are gay?

Are we sending the message to our boys that it isn’t acceptable within our masculinity framework to be smart, creative and artistic in the United States? Have we boxed our boys into believing some sort of myopic masculine mythology? Is this why some of them are lost or adrift? Is this why some of them snap?

I don’t have answers to any of these difficult questions. But I think we could start by listening to our boys, letting them voice their fears, loving them for their strengths and frailties, and encouraging them to follow their dreams whether it leads to refining the inner workings of an airplane engine, nursing a segment of our aging population or writing the next great American novel.

Have we created a metaphorical place for our young men, which they are desperately trying to escape?

What more can we do to help guide, challenge and mentor the young men in American society so that they can find their bliss and leave the island of misfit boys?