Many Happy Returns

Like clockwork, the wildflowers are blooming again in Arizona. Daisies and poppies are beginning to soak up the sun in fields, on yards, and along roadways. Pandemic or not, this burst of color and continuity occurs every February and March in the Sonoran Desert.

I think Mother Nature is trying to show us something astounding and reassuring about the power of her regularity. She’s at her best when she delivers beauty on her own terms and schedule, unimpeded by the twenty-four-hour news cycle. It is simply our job to notice her actions, absorb her displays, and allow them to calm our spirits as we wait for pieces of our pre-pandemic lives to appear.

On Tuesday, I wrote about returning to swim at Eldorado Pool after a year-long, COVID-19-induced hiatus. I swam again on Thursday. In the past week, there have been other hopeful signs. Blooming like Arizona wildflowers, a series of separate occasions outdoors with friends–all uplifting–have renewed my spirits.

Last Saturday night, Tom and I drove to Glendale to watch a movie under the stars with Danny, Shea, and Michael. It was a cool, windy night for Arizona. We bundled up to watch an action flick under individual blankets.

On Monday, Tom and I dined on a restaurant patio with Pavel and Rick. On Wednesday, we consumed a potluck meal under a gazebo with Adele, Len, Carolyn, and John. All four comrades in our condo community continue to support my writing addiction.

On Thursday evening, Tom and I ventured back to a nearly empty indoor movie theatre for the first time in a year. Behind masks, we watched Nomadland, a stirring story of loss and hope set against the grand landscape of the American west. On Friday, we reconnected with Paul, another friend from a different strand of life. Like the wildflowers, he has just reappeared.

This morning we laughed and joked with Garry, a chorus friend, and his partner James. Together we polished off four doughnuts under our recently pruned fig tree. I’ve missed Garry’s raucous sense of humor and positive energy. He bought three of my books.

More safe social steps are coming in the next week to carry us further down the path of healing: a movie with John and Carolyn tonight; a stroll with Brian and Bernadette at the Desert Botanical Garden tomorrow; a visit with George on Monday evening. Tom and I have grown close to him. He’s bringing steaks for the three of us to grill. Then, later in the week, another dinner outside with Len and Adele at one of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants.

Suffice it to say, Tom and I are lucky to have all of these friends in our lives. I didn’t intend for this to sound like a reemerging social calendar. More than that, it’s my latest batch of evidence concerning how important in-person human connections are, how much we need each other to survive and be happy. Zoom interactions and text messages aren’t enough to sustain us.

Yes, it’s been a week of many happy returns, a flurry of book sales, and several steps and strokes in the right direction. I’m thankful for them all and the opportunities ahead.

As Tom and I wait to be fully vaccinated (Garry and James already are), I feel an inoculation of hope. We’re finally beginning to rediscover the friendship strands of our lives. We’re poised to bloom again in the Arizona sun.

Return to Eldorado

Though the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not one of those dusty western stories. You know, where the good guy returns to the scene of the crime for revenge against the villain and they duel it out in front of a saloon?

Instead, this is a much simpler, quieter tale about one man–me–beginning to take his shrunken life back a day after the United States surpassed half a million COVID-19-related deaths. (Incidentally, if you are like me, you are wondering if the decline in new cases and hospitalizations are harbingers of the waning days of a global pandemic or a mere lull, a mirage in the desert that has seduced us to believe some of us may actually escape after all.)

It had been nearly a year since I swam laps at Eldorado Pool in south Scottsdale. It exists about a mile from our condo. Before March 2020, it was a place I frequented three or four times a week. Of course, COVID-19 was the villain or at least the culprit that has kept me from going there for nearly twelve months.

Today, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 I returned to this place that soothes and energizes my body and spirit. I wrote a new chapter gliding in the water. That consisted of thirty minutes in lane eleven of our thirteen-lane, Olympic-size, community pool.

I was one of about a dozen swimmers in the pool at ten o’clock this morning. We were a lucky twelve, cupping our hands to push through cool water under sixty-five-degree blue skies, far from the snow and bluster that has consumed most of the United States recently.

There were a few familiar faces, like Frank’s. He smiled, asked how my winter has been, and if I’d been working on a new book. His question reminded me how long it had been since we had talked, how much we hadn’t discussed, how little he knew of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, and how much I had missed the connected pieces of my life … like swimming in a community pool, trading stories face-to-face with friends, realizing that the few added pounds around my middle can be shed easily by recapturing this strand of my life a few times a week. One lap at a time.

My swimming is over for the day. Now, outside the pool, I hold my breath–like most of the rest of the world–and wait. I am one of those under sixty-fivers (just barely) ready to be vaccinated, ready to schedule it as soon as I can, ready to recapture more strands of my life, ready to return to a world that once felt familiar.

After Our Stories Set Sail

I feel the pain and glory of every writer. We build the frames of our books, chapter by chapter. The process takes years. It is the culmination of time, art, and commitment.

We begin in the darkness in front of an empty page or a blank screen. We write a sentence or two that makes sense. We add and subtract in words. We rinse and repeat. We submerge ourselves to find the deepest meaning in the mundane and the spectacular.

One day, after months of determination and doubt, our rough draft is done. But we pause only briefly. We don’t want to lose our momentum. We dive back in for round after round of edits, because we want our stories to adhere to each other and to every reader who spends time with them.

Finally, the rewriting and polishing reveal the stories we intended. We invite a few trusted professionals, an editor and graphic designer, to join us in the literary chase. They stand by us on shore as we rewrite and polish passages, as we search for and discover the perfect cover, as we tweak phrases one final time, as we launch our true and false stories into the world.

As I watch my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, begin to bob on the waves of the reading world in the middle of a global pandemic, I wonder. What will happen next? Who will read my book? What will it mean to them? What will readers have to say about it?

These are just a few of the questions we independent writers ask after our stories set sail. We are brimming with ideas, but also uncertainties. We have little control over where our stories land. All we can do is breathe life into them, guide them from afar, send a little money their way, push trade winds in their direction, and wait to hear about our creations once they have landed.

Only then is a writer’s journey complete.

Sad Saturday

I don’t normally dive headlong into political and social issues, but I feel a sense of doom and anger percolating inside me tonight after the acquittal of our previous president. I won’t mention his name here. I wish I had the power to encourage every media outlet to do the same, because what he wants more than anything is attention.

Today forty-three pathetic, posturing Republican senators disavowed a mountain of evidence presented by the impeachment managers, who connected the dots. They directly linked his unconscionable actions to an insurrection that caused death and destruction at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But our unnamed ex-president has slithered away unpunished once again.

I know the past twelve months have been difficult all around the world. Families have lost loved ones: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. But what we have endured in the United States has been monumentally horrible.

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from complications of COVID-19. As the numbers continue to mount, we’ve witnessed countless stories of unfortunate souls–many of them minorities–who have lost their lives and their livelihoods. We’ve watched as the evil of racism and hatefulness has surfaced and been fueled by rhetoric from the White House. It was once a hallowed place.

We’ve dodged crazy conversations with neighbors and ex-friends, who believe any number of preposterous conspiracy theories, especially the big lie of a rigged election, when all the facts and evidence tell us otherwise. We’ve shuttered our lives to survive, shrunken our existences to cope, masked our faces to protect ourselves and our neighbors, covered our eyes in horror at news reports, and swallowed hard to salvage any shred of our remaining dignity and sanity.

Now we are required to suck it up once again, and watch the shameful evidence of senior governmental officials who are more concerned with securing their political futures than what they were elected to do on behalf of the American people … to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I don’t know if there is a silver lining in any of this. But, at least eighty-one million of us had the gumption to choose a forty-sixth president, who has a heart and good intentions. Joe Biden has already proven he will roll up his sleeves and fight on behalf of all of the American people, even those who didn’t vote for him. He and Kamala Harris are doing what they can to right this sinking ship and ramp up the distribution of vaccines across the country.

But here’s the biggest question of all. Even if we survive this global pandemic physically, what will be left of our democracy if we allow our past president to walk away without ever paying a price for the deep pain and intentional harm he has brought to our nation?

Book Chat

Now that I have published I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I feel like an empty-nester. All of the nurturing and sculpting is over. My purpose and attention has shifted from writer to salesman.

There is nothing too surprising about that. The frustrating part is that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. There are limited opportunities–none, really–for the face-to-face interactions I crave with readers. I don’t have a chance to talk about my books with people. Because I am mostly an extrovert–though much less so as I’ve gotten older–I miss that terribly. The only legitimate opportunities for authors to promote and sell their books are online.

Even so, on Wednesday afternoon, I manufactured a little of my own author interaction. I drove to the Scottsdale Public Library. I donated a copy of my latest book for its Local Author bookshelf. This is something I’ve done three times before.

Previously, this act was followed by a physical Local Author Book Sale, where readers and authors meet. (To replace the in-person fair, there is an online local authors talk series conducted through our library. I missed the deadline for submitting a video to participate. I was focused on finishing and publishing my fourth book.)

While at the library I spoke with Wen-Ling, a pleasant woman who coordinates some of the local author activities for the library. From one side of a glass partition I described my latest book to Wen-Ling and my passion for writing memoirs. She told me the staff hopes to reinstitute the Local Author Book Sale in 2022.

After our interaction, I found my energy. I raced back to the parking lot to my car to find a bookmark for Wen-Ling and postcard with information about my books. I returned to the library information desk, placed my printed materials on the counter, and waved to her. Wen-Ling was helping another patron, but from behind her mask she thanked me for donating my book. I smiled back and said goodbye.

It was a simple exchange, and the kind of thing I used to take for granted in our pre-COVID-19 world. But all of that has changed now. As Tom and I–and most of us in the world–wait to be vaccinated, I will continue to look for small ways to stay engaged. Whether I’m there for a mini book chat or just trying to stay healthy on the treadmill of life, I will always need to find ways to connect with those around me.

For the Sake of the Fig Tree

With all the energy and enthusiasm I’ve bestowed upon my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, Tom and I are certain our middle-aged fig tree has been feeling sad and neglected.

We first observed signs of this in the fall as I labored to complete my manuscript. Tears began to appear on the trunk. (Actually, the moisture was wetwood-causing bacteria and/or sap leaking from several spots.) This was likely a byproduct of messy sewer-related digging outside our front door that disrupted the roots in the July of 2020. It was one more irritant provided by a despicable year that was supposed to offer us perfect clarity.

Fortunately, the oozing didn’t deter our beloved fig from bearing fruit or producing its typical canopy of green and welcome shade from the Sonoran sun. Even so, we were worried. So, in the fall, I bought some fruit tree spikes and planted them at various places around the circumference of the tree. This deep-root nourishment–along with more frequent watering and an occasional bath of bleach (which Tom has provided on the leaky spots)–seems to have solved the leakage problem.

Pruning the gnarly fig tree is another matter. It’s something that must be attended to every winter. In previous years, a few of our neighbors (Mario and Yolanda, who winter here from their home in Italy) have supervised and completed this task. Not in 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented them from returning this year.

To fill the gardening void, Tom and I decided to step in and offer our services. If you read my book, you’ll discover this isn’t the first time we’ve trimmed fruit trees. We researched the best way to prune fig trees and paired that with our previous gardening knowledge and the love of plants and flowers that runs through my DNA.

On the morning of Thursday, February 4, we gathered our gardening gloves, two ladders, and three pairs of clippers. We cleared the area of potted plants beneath the tree. We pruned the fig tree.

This was a big job that involved climbing on a ladder, trimming the smallest branches first, and sawing off or lopping the medium-sized ones. The goal? To trim the fig down to a stump of its previous likeness, so that it will return with gusto and a new crop of branches, leaves and delectable fruits–remarkably all within six months.

After reaching, snipping, and sawing for two hours, we gathered the debris from the ground, deposited it in our condo community dumpster, guzzled a few bottles of water, and stretched our sore back and neck muscles.

Now, a mere skeleton of the fig remains. In a month or less, new growth will appear. That will be followed by longer branches, dozens of ripe figs in July, and a bouquet of green stretching toward the Sonoran sky.

Never fear, this annual haircut was just what the tree doctor ordered. It’s all for the sake of the fig tree. I don’t want its sense of neglect to intensify and become full-blown jealousy when that avalanche of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree sales I fantasize about starts rolling in.

My Lemon Tree Book is Live!

The trail of my literary life has led here. The Kindle version of my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, is now available on Amazon. (Paperbacks are in production and will be available for purchase at this same location on Amazon in the next few days).

The rush of adrenaline I feel today is at least as satisfying as books one, two and three, because I’ve devoted more than three years to this creative endeavor–imagining, developing, polishing, and agonizing over it.

In that sense, today is a combination of the exhilaration of unwrapping Christmas presents, skipping out the door on the last day of school, feeling weak in the knees the first time I approached the edge of the Grand Canyon, and hoping for a clean bill of health from my cardiologist. It’s all of that rolled into a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies.

In this anthology of Arizona stories, I dig deeper into themes that are important to me: the lasting love and comfort of family and friends; the humor, irony, and poetry in everyday situations; the profound beauty of nature and how it shapes us; the joy of realizing a literary life; and the conviction required to be an authentic gay man–a real gay couple–in a world often rife with ignorance.

As you might expect, the upheaval we have all faced in Coronaville (my name for our shared global address of uncertainty) is present here too. How could it not be? The pandemic has dominated our lives and–at its core–this is a non-sequential personal and societal 2017-to-2020 slice of life.

All of these themes–and flights of fancy (backward and forward in time) to visit familiar and new people and places–run through my book. They are the threads in this tapestry that has become my writing style. They are the elements of the sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-serious voice I have unearthed in my life with Tom in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.

As we wait for our vaccinations and continue to hope we will recapture the most important strands of our disrupted lives, I think you will find comfort, honesty and humor in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. I also think it is a testimonial to the importance of our families, communities, and human connections as we strive to sustain ourselves no matter where we live, no matter where this journey leads us.

January’s Gift

Tonight there was more than a January chill in the air in the Valley of the Sun. As we returned home from our walk along the Crosscut Canal, we looked skyward. I scampered home to grab my telephoto lens.

Even as we stumble through the dark of a global pandemic, there is more to investigate and admire than what’s trending on Netflix. There is January’s gift. There is the beauty of nature.

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

A New Day in History

As a memoir writer, I usually look for clues from the past to enlighten the present. Or signs from nature, such as the cottonwood trees, which I gravitate toward on my walks on the edge of the Desert Botanical Garden. Even in mid-winter here in Arizona, they cling to their brown autumn leaves as they touch another blue Sonoran sky.

No matter what happened yesterday or the day before — or which leaves hold on, fall, or decompose in the desert sun — January 20, 2021 is a day unto itself. It is a twenty-four-hour period filled with residual pain and new possibilities.

Despite the intense security required in Washington, D.C. to stage the inauguration of our forty-sixth president, the deed is done. Joe Biden is now our president; Kamala Harris our vice president. She is the first woman — the first woman of color — to hold this high office. That is something grand to celebrate.

Yes, the years, months and days leading up to this have been marred by a failed presidency, political upheaval, social distress, a January 6 insurrection, and the awful reckoning of more than four hundred thousand lives lost in the United States in one year to this pandemic.

But the light flickering in the sky above the cottonwood trees on this day feels different to me. The atmosphere on the steps of the U.S. Capitol is also new. There is unity in the messages, diversity in the images, and poetry in the air.

Finally, at least for one day, we have something to be proud of again as a nation. It is a new day in history.