How Do You Spell Grateful?

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S-C-R-A-B-B-L-E … and it’s been that way for Tom and me for the past twenty-three years.

***

Back in the fall of 1996, I was a single dad. At the time, Nick was twelve; Kirk was seven. The divorce decree called for my boys to spend half of their time with their mother at her home and half with me at mine. Both of us lived in Mount Prospect, Illinois.

It was far from the perfect parenting scenario for my sons, but at least I was able to see them regularly, attend school and sports events, and have an influence on their lives. I’m thankful for those years and my life as a dad, though it was a tumultuous time for all of us. It’s difficult for me to believe my sons are now thirty-five and thirty,  but I’m forced to realize it’s true. When I pass a mirror, I see the 2019 version of me. (By the way, if you’re a parent, you may have an interest in reading my book An Unobstructed View.)

Meanwhile, also in late 1996, Tom and I were beginning to build our relationship. We realized we needed to have at least one time a week when we could count on seeing each other … while juggling two independent demanding careers and honoring my desire and commitment to be there for my sons.

So, we concocted a scheme. On most Sunday mornings, we left our respective homes. They were seven or eight miles apart. We met at a coffee shop in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for a few hours of creative wordplay. We devoted our Sunday mornings to each other and Scrabble. Each week we formed new combinations of words on our portable game board while cradling hot cups of coffee. It was our time then and it’s our time now. We’ve been repeating this refrain for twenty-three years in Illinois, Arizona and places in between.

***

Scrabble will always be our magnificent obsession. On bright days and dark ones, our creative oasis is our escape from the traumas of our world and Breaking News. Just the two of us producing endless combinations of vowels and consonants and laying them out across a compact board.

Yesterday was no exception. We drove to The Coffee Bean in Scottsdale and carried our portable Scrabble. With the game midway between us, we consumed two cups of coffee and shared a blueberry scone at a table outside on an eighty-degree, autumn-in-Arizona morning.

Unfortunately for me, Tom was victorious as he is at least fifty percent of the time. On this occasion, his thirty points (a double word score on the word pique near the end of the game) sealed the deal. The final score? 294 points for him; 278 for me.

But the outcome really never matters. What counts is that on good days and bad ones we’re keeping our brains nimble and our Scrabble tradition alive. Our weekly propensity to manipulate tiny wooden letters in a tray will always be ours … and I’ll be forever grateful for the memories of our Scrabble Sundays. From A to Z.

 

Under Blue Skies and Pecan Trees

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One of my favorite lunch spots in Phoenix: The Farm at South Mountain. An impromptu meal of creamy tomato basil soup and half of a turkey sandwich with Tom. The best part? Dining outdoors together at a picnic table under blue skies and pecan trees.

That’s something to be thankful for any day. But especially on November 1 when it’s eighty degrees in the Valley of the Sun and other parts of the country are facing the harsh realities of raging wildfires or snow-crusted sidewalks and jack-o’-lanterns.

During November, I’ll be posting messages of thankfulness. Some will be quick observations like these about the warm place I call home. Others will be deeper stories of reflection and gratitude … mini-memoirs about people who have made a difference in my life or left an indelible imprint.

What are you thankful for?

So Long, Old Friend

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“Just wanted to tell you that Millie passed away.

She was ninety-nine years old. What a life.”

Tom and I received this text today from Kathy, a close friend and neighbor who lived two doors north of us in Mount Prospect, Illinois. The community was our home until July 2017.

Millie, another of our neighbors, was an ever-enduring matriarch. She lived one block over. Directly behind us for two decades. Evidently, she died a few days ago.

I remember Millie fondly, tending to her flowers along the back fence. She was one part avid gardener and rose lover, one part suburban dynamo, one part cantankerous character.

Millie left a lasting impression on my family and me. So much so that I wrote Along the Back Fence, an essay about her and our relationship. It became a chapter in An Unobstructed View, my book of reflections on the meaning of my Illinois life.

Millie didn’t quite make it to her one hundredth birthday, which would have occurred in early January. But as a tribute to her and long-lasting neighbors everywhere who enrich our lives, I choose to celebrate as if she had.

Here’s my story and an image of a rose I captured across the sidewalk in another neighbor’s yard in sunny Arizona.

So long, old friend.

***

Along the Back Fence

Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence. But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.

It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it—too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess. So when she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.

I don’t think we had too much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here and there as I pushed my mower around my yard and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage. Eventually, we broke the ice.  From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.

By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.

Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. On one summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis. Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.

“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”

And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from their home on the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature dish of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.

That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents—Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015. But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health—her own sure-footedness—declined.

In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby. Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.

When she arrived, I reached out to give her a hug as she leaned in to rest her head on my shoulder. She told me she still loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it any more. Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from the side of her garage and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.

Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too. It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.

“I love you guys,” she said.

“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.

Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.

And the red rose bush—which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire—took root and bloomed before we departed.

We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.

It only seemed fitting.

 

 

Saturday at the Library

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Some of my earliest and most vivid “learning” memories happened at the library. To be precise, it was the Tesson Ferry Library in South St. Louis County in the 1960s. I remember finding quiet comfort there with my mother on autumn Saturdays. I don’t recall the titles we checked out, but my sister and I always left with two or three books in our arms. Stories to be read at home. Books our busy mother often read with us.

At that point in life, I never imagined I would become an author. Or that some fifty years later the manager of acquisitions at the St. Louis County Library would call me (on my deceased mother’s birthday) with happy and fortuitous news. The library had purchased four copies of From Fertile Ground, my book about the grief I felt after the loss of my mother.

Now in my sixties, local libraries in Arizona deliver a dependable dose of quiet continuity. They connect my early days as an eager reader with my later days as a memoir writer … and provide community outlets for me to connect with avid readers.

All of this is a prelude to say I’m excited and proud to be exhibiting at a Local Author Fair this Saturday (1 to 4 p.m.) in Mesa at the Dobson Ranch Library, 2425 S. Dobson Road. Authors from across Arizona will be there exhibiting, selling and signing their books. I love these opportunities to talk with readers. To hear about the kinds of books that interest them. To share my stories and memoir writing tips.

If you live in the area or happen to be visiting the Valley of the Sun, I hope you’ll stop by to say hello and spend part of your Saturday at the library.

Sand Dollar Days

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Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I have a good life. Warm, simple and true.

Exhibit A: though it’s late October (more than a month since most outdoor pools in the U.S. closed for the summer), today I completed my morning swim as I usually do at our Olympic-size community pool … thirty lengths under blue skies and eighty-degree temperatures.

Despite this frequently idyllic scenario, every locale has its drawbacks. For us in the Sonoran Desert, it’s the unforgiving heat in June, July and August … especially in the summer of 2019 when monsoon storms mysteriously didn’t materialize … and the fact that we live a few hundred miles from the closest beach on the Pacific Ocean. Put another way, we have plenty of sand, but no sand dollars to dazzle our days.

Unless, of course, you have a thoughtful friend such as Glenn. On Monday, having just returned from a week in San Diego, our neighbor and gentle-yoga comrade surprised Tom and me with a little beauty from the west coast: a handful of bleached skeletons of dead sand dollars.

Unfortunately, we weren’t home when Glenn stopped by, so he left them in a transparent tray near our back door. Who knew these sandy gems would one day wash up on the shore in land-locked Scottsdale, Arizona?

According to folklore and Wikipedia, sand dollars have come to represent all sorts of things. For instance, coins misplaced by mermaids or the lost citizens of Atlantis. Christian missionaries saw symbolism in the five-fold radial design, comparing it with the Star of Bethlehem.

I prefer to think of the sand dollars simply as a gift of nature. A reflection of grand, infinite, and ever-radiating design. Something like ripples of water on the surface of the ocean or individualized snowflakes that fall and decorate the sky and then the streets (not in Scottsdale, but surely back in my previous hometown of Mount Prospect, Illinois).

Better yet, I see sand dollars as a symbol of the interconnected way friends like Glenn enter and influence our lives. At first they may appear on the periphery. But over time they make their way on shore. They begin to leave their own personalized mark. They remind us to be grateful for the kindnesses of neighbors and friends who grace our lives. They teach us to be thankful for the goodness of our sand dollar days.

 

Palm and Pine and Sycamore

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Three gather to whisper, one natural grace.

Sure shiny October, rare shady space.

Beckoning branches, bowing before.

Triumphant triad, truth to adore.

Forever delight, never ignore.

Palm and pine and sycamore.

 

By Mark Johnson, October 20, 2019

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.