Fathers of the Desert

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Empirical and imperfect, you are the keepers of the west.

You bear fruit for mourning doves.

You guard cottontails and creosote.

You stand sturdy and erect.

You love, fear and forgive.

Your spiny symmetry shades our world.

You cast lengthy shadows.

You fall mightily.

You are the fathers of the desert.

You remember everything.

You forget nothing.

You are the proof of yesterday, the path of today, the hope for tomorrow.

The Wonder of Purple Summer

In popular American culture, there is boundless emphasis on achieving success, material wealth, and happiness before you turn thirty.

That’s not a recent phenomenon. Consider every car ad you’ve ever seen that plays on a loop during the holidays with a cooing couple in love and big bow tied outside on the latest red, silver or black luxury sedan or SUV.

Yet, for most people, the premise is fraudulent and anxiety producing. In reality, it takes much longer (sometimes your entire life) to find your path, push your head above water financially and (if you’re lucky) discover some level of creative contentment.

For me, the monetary success didn’t come until my forties. Creative contentment came later. In my fifties. But it didn’t appear in an office or a cubicle. With a client or a colleague.

It began to surface ten years ago today … on June 19, 2010 … at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.

That night, as we prepared for two performances of Summer Lovin’ (our Pride concert), I found myself surrounded on stage by fifty new friends (with Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria) in Chicago’s thriving gay community. Diverse and talented people I had known for a mere three months.

At that moment, I didn’t know these kind cohorts–instrumental in my personal renaissance–would carry me across the creative threshold that night and become some of my most enduring friends. But that’s what happened for this member of the Windy City Gay Chorus for the next seven years.

I was smitten and felt my spring awakening (we were still a few days short of summer) when a circle enveloped us newbies, a stirring song (Walk Hand in Hand) swirled over and around me, and a red rose landed magically in my hand minutes before our 5 p.m. performance.

Then, on cue in the first act, we performed The Song of Purple Summer (written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) from the musical Spring Awakening.

It still makes me cry. It holds me captive.

***

And all shall fade
The flowers of spring
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything
But still it stays
The butterfly sings
And opens purple summer
With the flutter of its wings
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder of purple summer
And yet I wait
The swallow brings
A song too hard to follow
That no one else can sing
The fences sway
The porches swing
The clouds begin to thunder
Crickets wander, murmuring
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder of purple summer
***

On this night ten years later … in this age of tumult and fear … I feel the sadness and longing in this song.

But there is also comfort in this memory and the soaring voices of my Windy City friends.

In the spring of 2010, they ushered me to the wonder of purple summer.

 

A Ray of Hope in An Awful Year

SR Ferrell diary entry … July 2, 1964 … from Huntersville, North Carolina.

I plowed corn in Bottoms until noon. We had showers of rain about 12:30 and I did not plow any this afternoon. I set out my blueberry plants this afternoon. President Johnson signed the “Civil Rights Law” into law today. Partly cloudy. Hot. I went to Charlie Gibson’s and got some tomatoes. 69 degrees (Low). 87 degrees (High).

***

My guest blogger is SR Ferrell. My maternal grandfather (Sherrell Richardson Ferrell was his full name) was a mountain of a man, devoted farmer and prolific writer. He left behind more than fifty years of simple-but-occasionally-profound diary accounts. He and they became central characters in From Fertile Ground, the story of my grief and quest to rediscover my southern roots.

About the same time SR (a staunch southern Republican) was plowing corn in North Carolina, LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson, a storied southern Democrat) was signing the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. The legislation outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or natural origin.

I’m grateful for this history and what we can learn from it. Especially in 2020. So far, it’s been a frantic, frail and frenetic year. Defined by the immediacy of terrible tweets that take precedence in American society over the truth and track record of yesterday. It’s important that we pause for a moment to give the longitudinal threads in our lives their proper respect and attention.

History has shown LBJ was responsible for escalating U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On the other hand, with a stroke of his pen, the 36th president also proved to have a positive impact on domestic policy. The Civil Rights Act prohibits unequal applications in voter registration, racial segregation in schools, employment and public accommodations.

Certainly, our country hasn’t always followed the rule and spirit of this law. If it had, we wouldn’t now face a long painful road ahead. Sifting through the wreckage of racism. Building a society that actively demonstrates black lives matter.

Unrelated to the prejudices of skin color, today in a surprising 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the rights of LGBTQ workers. Citing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, nearly fifty-six years after LBJ signed the law, SCOTUS ruled that no one can be fired from their job on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The SCOTUS decision was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch (a conservative appointed by Donald Trump), who said the “message” of the law is “simple and momentous: an individual’s homosexuality or transgender status is not relevant to employment decisions.”

In this case at least, equality and history win out. This is a ray of hope in an awful year.

Perhaps it’s also a present from the past to the present from a president (born in Stonewall, Texas, ironically) hundreds of miles from the Stonewall Inn uprising of New York that defined the beginning of the LGBTQ movement in June 1969 … less than six months after LBJ left the White House.

Truly July 2, 1964 was a mighty day for SR, LBJ and all Americans. … and, with the Supreme Court’s decision today, despite our current troubles, we’ve taken a step in the right direction toward civil rights supported at the federal level.

 

 

 

Three Junes Ago

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What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

The Golden Hour

GoldenHour_June2020

Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.

 

 

I’m Coming Out … Again

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Like butterflies ready to spread our wings, yesterday Tom and I emerged from our protective cocoon and took flight. Actually, we drove, but for the first time in three months left the confines of the Phoenix metropolitan area.

North two hours climbing the switchbacks on I-17 out of the valley into the mountains. Past stately saguaros and wild-west warning signs … Deadman Wash, Horsethief Basin, Big Bug Creek, Bloody Basin, Trump 2020, Emergency Curfew 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., Fire Danger High … before landing safely on Carolyn and John’s driveway in the shade of their pines. Twenty degrees cooler in the mile-high bliss of Prescott, Arizona.

I didn’t make this psychological connection until this morning. But cocooning in a condo for three months to dodge a global pandemic … albeit a cozy two-bedroom desert unit that’s about to get a fresh coat of paint to brighten our internal space … is rather like living in a closet for one quarter of the year.

Sure, since March we’ve ventured out on numerous occasions. Daily walks and weekly trips to the grocery store behind masks. More recent outings to our community gym to stay fit and Super Cuts for haircuts that didn’t occur over our bathroom sink. But nothing on the order of an actual day trip away from our immediate community.

Ask any previously or currently closeted gay man. He’ll tell you. There is misery in physical and metaphorical confinement.

I’m not suggesting that the stay-at-home order in states across this country and around the world has been a breeze for straight people. But I have a number of friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus and Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago, who don’t have partners. They live alone. They’ve been missing the camaraderie of the gay community. People who would normally be available to sing, hug and laugh in person are unavailable except on Zoom. Gay people are missing their lifeline and the reassurance that comes with an open life in a freer society.

This wasn’t going to be a story about coming out. When Tom and I returned home late yesterday afternoon from an idyllic day with Carolyn and John to see their lovely new home in Prescott, I had grand plans to write a quieter piece about breathing the pine-scented mountain air two hours northwest of Phoenix.

It really was grand. Spending several hours with our adventurous and compassionate friends, previous residents of Anchorage, Alaska, whom we would see sporadically at their Scottsdale condo. In 2019, they uprooted and transplanted their lives to become full-time Arizonans … fortuitously landing in a home filled with loads of charm, unlimited possibilities, carved wood character, and window seats that reach into the tall pines.

Tom and I had intended to drive up to see them in their new home before now. Of course, that nasty COVID-19 disrupted those plans. Fortunately, we endured. It was worth the wait. Our much-anticipated celebration–clinking glasses outdoors under a blazing red patio umbrella–finally happened on June 4, 2020. It was a day in a year none of us will forget.

Today, Tom and I resumed our life in Scottsdale. I boarded a treadmill around 9:30 at our community gym. A pleasant older woman, smiling from a safe distance (eight feet to my right on her own treadmill), said good morning. I returned the favor. We had exchanged hellos before.

She asked me if Tom and I were relatives. I said no. She told me we look a lot alike. Then, came the moment. The one every gay person knows. Should I out myself and speak my truth or just let this pass?

You probably know what happened next. I came out … again. The first time was with my ex-wife, then my sister, sons and mother … all in the 1990s. There have been dozens of times since. With neighbors, colleagues, clients, acquaintances, store clerks who asked “Are you guys brothers?” as they scanned our groceries … the list goes on. The coming out process is lifelong. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a one-time episodic event.

At any rate, you guessed it. On June 5, 2020, I told a friendly lady on the adjacent treadmill at Club SAR that Tom is my husband. That we’ve been a couple for nearly twenty-five years (actually, it will be twenty-four in August). That I didn’t see the resemblance, though couples do often take on similar characteristics and gestures.

She kept smiling. Told me she was a retired nurse. Asked if I was retired. I told her I had left behind my corporate job years ago and now write. The conversation ended rather quietly. It was cordial.

I know there will be countless times in my life, when this will happen again. When I will out myself in an innocuous place. It doesn’t have to be Pride month in a year when our current president is hell bent on rolling back the rights of all Americans.

Living my life as an openly gay man is a commitment I’ve made to myself and other gay people. We need to remind ourselves we aren’t alone in this frightening world. We need to remember that happiness comes with visibility.

Whether I’m breathing the pine-filled Arizona mountain air with dear friends and allies like Carolyn and John or down in the valley with people I’ve yet to meet, there’s no turning back. The truth will set us free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A View from the Bleachers

As a suburban white kid of the sixties, growing up in the segregated St. Louis area, I had no black classmates, teachers, acquaintances or neighbors. Until I went to college (and more so as I built adult relationships with black colleagues and friends), my only first-hand experiences with black people occurred while riding a city bus, tuning into the latest episode of Room 222, swimming in a public pool or watching Bob Gibson and Lou Brock play ball from the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium.

I’ll admit it, as I wrote that previous sentence, it felt very odd and constricting … even shameful. But this was the world I came from. Occasionally, at family gatherings, one of my uncles would take a puff from his nasty cigar and proceed to talk about “blacks moving into the neighborhood.”

As a boy, that kind of hateful rhetoric and the smoke hovering in my parents’ living room brought tears to my eyes. As an adult, it still makes me sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, at the time none of the other adults spoke up. I felt like I wanted to run out of the room, but I didn’t.  I knew what he said was wrong. It was racism. It was painful.

Moving a few years ahead, maybe on some level I also thought “if people are saying bad things about black people just because they have a different skin color, what will they say about me if I tell them I’m gay?”

At times, it was a claustrophobic life of placating those who were the most vocal. Denying your true feelings. Walking on egg shells to keep the peace. Sadly, it was only a more distant chapter of simmering anxiety and poor race relations than the one we know well today.

On a personal level, I was able to learn and grow from it by honoring my own internal compass, broadening my experiences, meeting new and different people, traveling to new places, keeping an open mind … even for a time co-facilitating diversity training as a consultant and challenging managers and employees to draw from the strength of their differences rather than rejecting them.

Fortunately, both of my parents were decent people. They instilled in me a value of simple living. Caring for the disadvantaged. Saving for a rainy day. As a result, on some level, I’ve always identified more with the “have-nots” than the “haves”. It pains me to see people flaunt their advantage … their white privilege, their economic status, their lofty and meaningless titles.

Despite my limited experience with diverse people in the 60’s and 70’s, I was always comfortable sitting in the bleachers with Dad and the masses–mostly poorer black and white blue-collar workers–rooting for our hometown St. Louis Cardinals. Besides, it was all Dad could afford.

I recall one night. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town. It was a close game. I don’t remember the score or the outcome, but the bleachers were full and Dad and I were in the middle of a buzzing crowd. Between pitches, I asked him why some of the black patrons, ordinarily faithful to the Cardinals, were cheering for the Dodgers.

“It’s because of Jackie Robinson,” he said. “Back when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, he was the first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues. Ever since then, some black people are loyal to the Dodgers. They opened the door for others to follow.”

Now in 2020, with the recent murder of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide protests and general mayhem and destruction, I’ve been thinking of this Jackie Robinson moment with Dad. How little I knew of the plight of black people back then. How much more I know now about loving other people no matter their skin color, speaking up for your rights, voicing your views, and demanding justice.

I’m not condoning the opportunistic looting in cities around the country, some of which we’ve seen here in Scottsdale, Arizona. But, in honor of George Floyd’s life and of many other black men and women who have died needlessly before him, we must find a way to heal as a nation.

We must acknowledge that racism in our society exists just as it has for a long time. We must listen to the “have nots” of our world. We must read more and follow the teachings of history and science.

We must elect leaders, nationally and locally, who will advocate for the rights of all Americans … no matter their skin color, cultural heritage, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

Our future as a nation depends upon it.

Come What May

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I can’t reconcile the beauty of the desert rose outside my backdoor with the ugliness of a black man’s murder in Minneapolis. Except I know the rose is a natural creation that thrives on heat and sun, while the killing is the latest manifestation of man-made hate and ignorance.

I can’t justify one-hundred-thousand deaths perpetuated by a virulent virus in less than six months in a complicated country. Except I know the virus is a natural creation with a cycle of its own, while the escalating numbers are evidence of lies and disarray in an ill-equipped nation.

I can’t imagine another month or two or three or more of disorientation and destruction. Except I know the mockingbird will forever sing atop a palm in the peak of the day, while an uncertain world continues to turn come what may.

Gymbolic Bliss

There was no celebration. No ribbon cutting. No marching band. No drum roll. No crescendo. No crashing cymbals as the glass doors parted magically and Tom and I swiped our membership tags under the watchful electronic eye at the entrance to Club SAR.

Yet, in the scheme of restoring sanity, at 11:45 a.m. on the Tuesday after Memorial Day I felt the symbolic hug of a good friend when I turned the corner and spotted a few familiar faces and free weights.

Smiling like a miscast Lone Ranger through the discomfort of his black bandana and makeshift mask, manager Jonathan greeted us from ten-plus feet away.

“Best day ever,” he proclaimed as we scanned the newly configured space.

It was a tongue-in-cheek phrase he had uttered previously throughout 2019 and early in 2020 every time we walked through the door. Every time we exchanged pleasantries before climbing aboard our favorite life-affirming machines in our past lives.

But on this day in late May it really did feel like the best day ever for two sixty-two-year-old men, who had cobbled together an at-home gym in mid-March (a basketball and ten-and-fifteen-pound hand weights to keep hearts and joints strong in the face of an impending pandemic).

The best day ever to take a giant step away from our predominantly stay-at-home lives. The best day ever to enter a newly configured world of plexi-glass partitions, spaced-out treadmills, scattered stationary bikes and strategically-located sanitizing stations.

It didn’t take long for muscle memory to take hold in a room sprinkled with souls intent upon forestalling the gym reaper. Forty-five minutes later … past trusty treadmill steps, a small stream of light weights, and elliptical exclamation point … we said our goodbyes, drained our water bottles to quench our thirst, and stepped toward our Sonata.

Certainly one thing is true. On this Tuesday–re-opening day at our community gym–a  smattering of Scottsdale survivors recaptured a strand of their pre-COVID-19 lives … ever grateful for a few moments of gymbolic bliss.

 

 

 

 

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.