Let It Commence

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We’re a day away from the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. But, based on the weather I experienced in Chicago this past week, you wouldn’t know summer is about to commence.

It was definitely a windbreaker week in the Windy City, where unpredictable weather abounds. Cool temperatures. Sporadic raindrops. Fog rolling in and out along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Just a fraction of the changeable weather I was familiar with when I lived in northern Illinois from 1980 to 2017.

The good news is none of it put a damper on my reason for being back in the “City of the Broad Shoulders” (thanks Carl Sandburg) for five days. I flew from Phoenix to Chicago with my husband for joyous reasons. We attended DePaul University’s 120th commencement. We celebrated my younger son’s latest achievement. Kirk can now add the designation Master of Education to his resume.

Last Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, I was one of several thousand proud family members and friends seated inside Wintrust Arena to share the moment with loved ones. The crowd included my older son Nick, who sat beside me. He and his girlfriend had also traveled back to Chicago to support his brother. It was a constant sea of smiles, cheers, blue caps and gowns as Kirk and the other beaming graduates crossed the stage one-by-one and accepted their diplomas during the commencement ceremony.

Incidentally, after this experience, I’ve decided I prefer the word “commencement” over “graduation”, because the former aptly describes the beginning of new opportunities … new doors opening in a person’s life that come with a significant achievement. (The latter feels more like an ending, a conclusion or a door closing after success.) At any rate, if you–or someone close to you–recently walked up to accept a diploma on any level, I wish you the greatest success in your next endeavor.

Summer is the perfect season for good things to commence. Warm breezes. Plenty of sun. A much-needed vacation. Perhaps even a little time to read a book just for the fun of it or explore a new degree or business venture you’ve been wanting to try. The one deep down inside you that keeps calling your name.

Go for it. Happy Summer. Let it commence.

 

 

 

 

A Father’s Wish List

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It was nearly two years ago that I found myself lying on a gurney at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. It was July 6, 2017. My sixtieth birthday. I had just suffered a mild heart attack and entered the vast and unfamiliar world of emergency room doctors, cardiologists, attending nurses, and multi-syllabic medical procedures.

I had two wishes that day: to survive the ordeal with my husband; and to speak with both of my adult sons to let them know I was okay. Thankfully, both of my wishes came true.

Late in the afternoon of July 6, Jacob, an EKG technician in his early thirties, turned me on my left side. He applied a cooling gel and ran a device across my chest to record images of my heart.

At that moment, Jacob gave me an unexpected gift that carried me past the immediate task and my pain. He confided in me that he was a new father adjusting to a sleepless existence. Working to raise and protect his newborn son. Overwhelmed by the sudden changes in his life.

Strange as it was–with my health hanging in the balance–Jacob and I entered a new landscape.  We talked about something we had in common. We were both dads. It was something like staring into a painted desert of fatherhood (like what you see here in Arizona) where unexplored layers of possibilities abound.

As I spoke with Jacob, I conjured fleeting memories of my two sons as tumbling toddlers and testy teens. I told him to hang in there and relish the early years. To try to realize that the heavy lifting of fatherhood would fade over time.

I told him there would be meaningful moments ahead with his son. Moments I cherished with my sons. Moments he might cherish with his boy too when he looked back over his life.

Occasionally, over the past two years, I’ve thought of Jacob and wondered how he was coping … knowing we will likely never meet again.

Now, with Father’s Day upon us, I wish I could offer him more ideas on what it takes to be a good dad. To that end, I’ve composed the following list … friendly advice from a fellow father who’s looking out for all the Jacobs in the world who are striving to be the best dads they can be.

***

Love your son … and tell him you do.

Listen to and validate his dreams.

Provide him with an honest and safe home.

Buy him nutritious food and encourage him to exercise.

Cheer him on when he succeeds. Encourage him when he fails.

Don’t spend a lot of money buying him new things. Spend it on shared experiences instead.

Teach him the importance of lifelong learning and saving money for a rainy day.

Show him what it means to respect animals, nature and diverse people.

Explain to him that it’s a sign of strength to ask questions and show vulnerability.

Love your son no matter who he loves. Remind him you’ll always be his dad.

 

The Gym Reaper

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It was a wary Wednesday morning when she entered with the throbbing heat.

Sashaying in stark sleeveless midnight over skull-and-crossbone culottes.

Flipping the knot in her ponytail and mounting a stationary bike.

Surveying the room and speed cycling with no scythe.

Finishing her set and vanishing in silence.

Leaving without unsuspecting souls.

***

By Mark Johnson

June 13, 2019

 

Heating Up and Cooling Off

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Here in the Valley of the Sun, 100-degree temperatures have returned. This is not a revelation. Now that I’ve become a desert rat, I’ve learned to expect they’ll be with us for the next few months.

There’s no need to worry about me. I’ve adapted to living in the heat. Early morning walks and swims before the heat sets in. Daily and repeat applications of sunscreen. Plenty of water. Broad-brimmed hats. Pop-up monsoon storms. Biannual visits to the dermatologist. A few weekend getaways to the majestic mountains and fragrant pines of northern Arizona. A trusty sunshade to cover the dashboard of our car when its parked. These are the norm in the Sonoran Desert.

I find strange comfort in all of this, because the return of triple digits reminds me of the scorching summers that defined my suburban St. Louis childhood. This 1960 image always makes me smile. It features the neighborhood kids and me (on the far right) devouring popsicles on the front porch of my home. As a tribute to the blazing days of summer, I hope you’ll enjoy this cooling excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

***

The oppressive heat and humidity in St. Louis can wear you down. At times, it’s like carrying around a moist ten-pound cape on your shoulders. Or having your dental hygienist take x-rays and forget to remove the protective flak jacket before you leave the office.

One solution is a three-letter word: ice. In the 1960s, a Pevely Dairy truck driver would deliver milk and other dairy products to homes at the top of our street in the cul-de-sac. About a half dozen of us kids would scurry to catch the truck up the street screaming “ICE!” at the top of our lungs.

On occasion, the driver would pause and drop a big block of ice off the back of his truck onto the pulsating concrete, where it broke into smaller pieces. We’d grab a chunk and apply it to our skin as a soothing balm. We were in heaven.

Truth be told, the iceman didn’t cometh to deliver the goods that often, but he winked and dropped a block of ice into our path a few times each summer–just enough to give us hope that we could carry on the chase and renew the ritual.

The ice cream truck also visited our neighborhood. My sister and I begged our parents for change to buy an ice cream sandwich or dreamsicle from the Good Humor man. He even sold a “bomb pop” popsicle. It was red, white and blue and shaped like an actual bomb with a round top and fins coming out the sides.

Of course, in the Vietnam War era, we didn’t grasp the horror of buying a refreshing treat that was shaped like a weapon. We just knew it kept us cool.

 

 

 

 

Ode to the D-Day Generation

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One hundred years ago,

You didn’t know what would happen in twenty-five.

You didn’t know what battles you’d fight or letters you’d write.

You only knew that school was out and the heat was rolling in.

You are gone now, but never far away in the stories we tell.

You live on the pages with your sepia-stained insights.

You will always be the ones who raised the flag high.

You will always be the ones we will never deny.

_____________________________________

Written by Mark Johnson on June 6, 2019

Photo of Violet, Thelma and Walter Johnson

1919 Bryan Hill Elementary School Picnic

St. Louis, Missouri

 

To Vivid People and Memories

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With Father’s Day approaching, I had been intent upon finding a home for a short piece I wrote about my dad and me. This morning I got the answer I hoped for. The editor of The Drabble contacted me to say they wanted to publish In His Shoes.

If you follow the link, you’ll note that the last line of my bio at the bottom includes this sentence: “I write to pay tribute to vivid people and memories.” Certainly, my father was a vivid person. A peace seeker. A kind and troubled man. A patriotic, but wounded soldier. A playful and unfulfilled poet. If he were alive, I know he would have cherished this moment with me, because he knew how tough it was to get your writing published and be recognized for your creative ideas.

I imagine he also would have applauded last Saturday as I stood with my husband Tom behind a table with my three memoirs fanned out before me at StoryFest in Mesa, Arizona … wearing this nametag, working to capture the attention of attendees as they sauntered by, and managing to sell a half dozen books before packing the rest away.

At any rate, “paying tribute to vivid people and memories” is where this post, my newly published story and Saturday’s event intersect.

Shortly before noon at StoryFest, a woman about my age approached my table. I said hello as she flipped through the pages of my latest book, An Unobstructed View. When I told her about my journey west and our quest to create a new home, I felt our eyes lock. It was clear to me she had something important on her mind. She proceeded to tell me her life was in flux. She and her wife had recently decided to end their relationship.

As I listened to her story of uncertainty, I felt her pain. I also thought my book might help her heal and build a new life. My tears began to surface when I explained how challenging it was in 2017 to say goodbye to our Mount Prospect, Illinois home … where Tom and I felt loved and welcomed … especially after surviving a health scare. Yet less than two years later we are happy in our new home and community in Scottsdale, Arizona.

By this point in the conversation, I already felt a kinship with this stranger. This vivid person. When she confided she wanted to buy my book, I felt joy. I knew we’d made a meaningful connection. Before she left, I tucked a card with my personal email in the book and wrote these words inside the flap:

“For Colleen … Enjoy the Journey … Mark Johnson.”

To be sure, my exchange with Colleen reminded me how important love and security are in all of our lives. And that we need to pay tribute to the vivid and vulnerable people who impact our lives each day–whether they be long-gone fathers, newfound friends or somewhere in between.

Telling Stories in the Desert

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On Saturday, June 1 (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), I’ll be exhibiting in the Authors Showcase at the KJZZ Arizona StoryFest in Mesa, Arizona. This free event will be held at the Mesa Convention Center, Building C (201 North Center Street). If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll stop by and see me. I’ll provide An Unobstructed View of all three of my books. In the meantime, here’s a little anecdote that may inspire you to write or at least get you in the storytelling mood.

***

It was July of 1989. My thirty-second birthday had just come and gone. At least that’s what the calendar told me. But I wasn’t feeling celebratory. I felt lost. Personally and professionally. I was deeply depressed.

Seated across from me in his suburban Chicago office was Randy (not his real name), a kind and confident man in his forties with salt-and-pepper curly hair. Randy was my new friend. Randy was my lifeline. Randy was my therapist.

Over the next several years, I saw Randy twice a week. With his guidance, I always left with more hope than when I entered his office. We spent most of our time together exploring my family history and unwinding personal traumas. But, during one of our sessions, Randy asked, “If you could do something different professionally … something that isn’t public relations … what would it be?”

“I’ve always loved to write,” I responded. “I think I have at least one good book in me.”

Randy didn’t say much. He just smiled.

Thirty years have passed. It’s been nearly twenty-five years since I last spoke with Randy. But I’ll never forget the many ways he helped me find, accept and love myself during my tumultuous thirties.

If he were to read this, I know Randy would be proud and perhaps a little amazed that over the past five years I’ve written and published three books  … that I’m surviving in my sixties in a warmer climate … that I’ve found my voice and a happier life with my husband … that I’m sharing my stories with the world … that I’m telling and selling stories in the desert.

Thank you, Randy, for all of your gifts!

 

 

The Soldier on the Hill

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When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.

Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.

***

I talked with the soldier on the hill today.

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand–all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

 

I Didn’t Know, Indigo

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I didn’t know what roads we’d take eighty-two thousand miles ago.

“I bought a new car, Mom” … “What color is it?” … “Indigo.”

I didn’t know we’d escort her ashes in Illinois.

I didn’t know we’d dodge a windswept tumbleweed in Albuquerque.

I didn’t know we’d take a desperate left turn in St. Louis.

I didn’t know we’d go back to the Grand Canyon rim to gather pine cones.

I didn’t know any of it seven years ago.

I only knew you’d be the one to carry us home.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 21, 2019

 

In the Aftermath

 

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Though darkness abounds,

There is an opening in the aftermath.

An ever-widening aperture of love and hope.

It reminds us to focus on who we are at the center.

Able captains of our bodies, minds and spirits.

Imperfect, yet free and unencumbered.

Seekers of light and truth.

 

By Mark Johnson

May 17, 2019