Tag: A Writer’s Life

I’ve Only Just Begun

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I realize the title of this post sounds a little hokey and an awful lot like a lyric from a 1970s Carpenters song. (Please tell me you remember who Karen Carpenter was!) But I prefer to imagine that I, a generally healthy sixty-one-year-old male who visits his cardiologist every six months, will channel my energies into creative writing projects that will stimulate my intellect rather than stewing over my advancing age. That is beyond my control.

I adopted this philosophy five years ago this week. That’s when I walked out the door of my Aon office in Chicago and began a new chapter. As background, up until that moment I really didn’t feel I was living the artistic life I was meant to live. If anything, in late January 2014, I was numb from my mother’s death a year before and the escalating demands of navigating thirty-four years in the communication consulting, PR and advertising worlds.

After months of soul-searching and years of smart saving, I left the familiar unfulfilling days behind. I needed time to heal. I needed time to explore life on my terms. At age fifty-six, I grabbed my digital camera and began to capture images of darting dragonflies and picturesque prairie landscapes. I recorded random inspirations in my journal as I rambled along. The fog began to lift and my energy returned. Gradually, I discovered my way out in Illinois. As I wrote about the grief of losing my mother and revisiting my southern roots in From Fertile Ground, it prompted new possibilities. It promised a more poetic life.

What else have I learned in the past five years? After surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I know I am fortunate to be alive. My husband and I lead a creative, warm life. We have a quieter existence in Arizona far away from the hustle and brutal cold of Chicago’s late January days.

Even with the physical distance from my Chicago life, I’m thankful for friends there, who shared their gifts and inspired me along the way to be true to my creative self. Like my friend Dina. She and I were close colleagues at Aon. Five years ago, on my last day of corporate life, she gave me this artful-and-personal handmade gift: a mirrored collage for me to reflect on the fun-and-unforgettable aspects of my Chicago work life. I keep Dina’s gift on my desk in Arizona, because it captures where I’ve been and who I am: a big picture guy, who cares about his husband, good friends, art, music, theatre, the best books, and cuddly animals.

Yes, I lead a happier and more fulfilling life in the desert. Somehow I’ve written and published three books and survived a health scare. But it still feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities of this semi-retired, creative life.

When I look at Dina’s mirrored gift, it feels like I’ve only just begun.

 

 

 

Arizona Authors Book Sale

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If you live in the Phoenix area (or plan to visit the Valley of the Sun in early February to escape the bitter cold elsewhere) stop by and visit me and dozens of other Arizona authors on Saturday, February 2, at the 6th Annual Local Authors Book Sale.

The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., will be held at the Civic Center Library, 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd, Scottsdale, Arizona, 85251.

Naturally, I’ll be selling all three of my books: From Fertile Ground; Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator; and An Unobstructed View.

I look forward to meeting you there and will be delighted to sign whatever you purchase.

Alumni Bookshelf: Upper Right Corner

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Perhaps you feel like me. It’s day five in the new year. I’m restless … and I’m itching to regain my rhythm. The joys and demands of the holiday season have vanished in the night. They’ve left me standing in front of a gaping hole in my writing routine.

Simply typing these words is helping me to fill the void. It’s jarring me enough to jumpstart my journalistic juices. But, this week in my mail, I also found another bridge back to my creative ballast. My heart skipped a bit when I opened the Winter 2019 edition of MIZZOU magazine (the magazine of the Mizzou alumni association). I spotted a mention of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, in the upper right corner on page fifty-seven. It’s one of a dozen books highlighted in this edition, all written in 2018 by University of Missouri alumni.

As background, I didn’t pay for this mention. A few months ago I sent my latest book to the Alumni Bookshelf editor with a letter. I told him I thought his readers would find my book to be an inspiring story of promise, perseverance and reflection. Of course, I was hoping for this result. Because when you’re an independent writer, you’re a one-man or one-woman band. You’re always looking for a little exposure that puts you on the map. Maybe a few lines of type to represent the gallons of energy and love you poured into your latest literary venture.

So, here I am in front of my laptop on January 5, 2019. I’m sitting at my desk, gazing up at a palm tree outside my Arizona window. I’m thankful for MIZZOU magazine. I’m grateful for my University of Missouri education and the doors it has opened for me. I’m proud of the journalism degree I earned back in 1979.

Yes, it was forty years ago. But I’m still reaping the benefits. Today I’ve got an unobstructed view on the upper right corner of the alumni bookshelf.

Desert Rose: December Dreams

 

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Several years before our cross-country move and 2017 whirlwind adventure that led to An Unobstructed View, my husband and I were snowbirds. We flocked annually to the Arizona desert to escape portions of Chicago’s frigid winters and snowy springs.

One April, I remember being dazzled by the bright red blooms on the desert rose plants (adeniums) at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. We vowed that once we moved permanently and got settled, we’d buy one of these beautiful succulents and place it in a container in a sunny spot outside our condo.

We made good on that promise in October. We bought this adenium at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale. Now our new addition is losing its leaves. It’s dormant. It will remain that way until March, when the growing season takes flight.

This morning, I felt a little like our desert rose looks when I walked past it … out of sorts and disheveled in early December … craving quiet time as the busy Christmas season approaches … hoping for another spurt of growth and creativity in the new year … wondering where my next inspiration will come from.

For now, I’ll do my best to lie dormant. I’ll keep dreaming of new blooms in my Arizona life.

 

 

Thanksgiving 1993: The Mourning After

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It was eight o’clock on November 26, 1993, the morning after Thanksgiving, when I answered my phone in suburban Chicago. Mom’s voice cracked. Six words spilled out of her mouth, traveled through the phone line and hung in the air. “Mark, your Dad died this morning.”

My father had passed away peacefully in the middle of the night at his home south of St. Louis. Instantly, I no longer felt thankful. The mourning unfolded. Numbness inhabited my body.

Gradually, the facts began to sink in. My parents Helen and Walter Johnson had enjoyed the holiday with his two sisters in north St. Louis County. They had gathered at my cousin’s home for a big meal in Missouri that night. After Dad consumed a second slice of Thanksgiving pie, Mom and he kissed his sisters goodbye, drove home and prepared for bed. Shortly after midnight, Dad leaned back on his pillow and uttered, “Helen, I think I’m going to die now.” And he did. Unceremoniously.

Mom told me the paramedics came immediately after she dialed 911. They tried to revive Dad. But his second heart attack, thirty-one years after the first, claimed him that Friday morning. His life ended one week shy of his eightieth birthday.

Later that week, I stood near the banks of the Mississippi River with my mother, sister and two young sons. We watched as two stone-faced soldiers folded the flag on top of his casket into a triangle. Dad, a World War II veteran, was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. He was buried by a large tree on a hill overlooking a chapel.

Twenty-five years have passed. Row after row of simple white marble stones surround my father there, marking the remains of hundreds of other veterans. I imagine each of them were as proud as Dad was of his service to his country.

I’ve probably visited Dad’s gravesite twenty times since 1993. I go there to pay my respects to my father’s well-intentioned and turbulent life, to hear the clear tones of the clarion ring from the chapel on the quarter hour, to retrace my steps between the rolling rows of stones, to gaze at the deer that saunter by, to kneel beside Dad’s grave and that of my mother’s. She joined him, the other veterans and the deer there in 2013.

I’ll never forget how my father struggled with his bipolar disorder … how he searched endlessly for relief. But with the passage of time, the pain I witnessed has sifted away. Now I’m thankful to remember the entire picture of him: his corny jokes, crooked smile and chatterbox style; his love of family, the St. Louis Cardinals and a cold bottle of beer; his enthusiasm for Big Band music, sappy old movies and overflowing cups of coffee; his unbridled sincerity and patriotism; his quest to write his poetry in the 1960s.

I’m absolutely certain Dad would have been proud of his two grandsons and the men they have become. I’m not as sure he would have understood or accepted me as a gay man. But, because I know he loved me, he would have tried. He would have marveled at how I maneuvered through life as a single dad, juggled a demanding consulting career, sang on a stage with other gay men, wrote and published three books, married and moved across the country with my husband, and forged ahead in our Arizona home after suffering a heart attack of my own on my sixtieth birthday.

In 2018, when I see the American flag flap in the breeze, watch the Cardinals play ball or board the treadmill to keep my heart strong, I think of Dad. I have greater compassion for my father’s frailties and his plight to recover from his own heart trauma in 1962.

I wish I could have one more conversation with Walter Johnson to tell him these things and hug him once again, but this will have to suffice.

You’ve been gone so long, Dad, but I still love and remember you. Happy Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

A Salute to Walter and All Veterans

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My father, Walter Albert Johnson, was an Army sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment and veteran of World War II. Dad was proud of his service to his country. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the last great conflict of the European phase of the war.

When the war in Europe ended and Walter returned home on board the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, he was scheduled for a thirty-day leave prior to reassignment in the Pacific Theater of the military operation. But on August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. World War II ended  shortly thereafter. Walter’s fighting days were over. He received his honorable discharge from the Army on October 11, 1945.

Walter didn’t talk much about his experience as a soldier. But I know he endured foxhole fright and frozen feet alongside hundreds of other soldiers who faced a similar plight. Years later, he suffered horrible nightmares. Even so, in the early 1960s when he huddled with my sister and me along parade routes that wound down St. Louis streets,  I remember how Dad jumped to attention to salute the American flag as it passed. I admired his sense of patriotism. It was one of his finest qualities.

Though Walter has been gone nearly twenty-five years, I think of him often. Snippets of him and his lasting impressions on my life appear in all three of my books. In honor of Veterans Day and the sacrifices made by all military veterans living and deceased, the purchase price of the Kindle version of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, will be reduced to ninety-nine cents on Amazon from November 9 through 15.

 

 

The Blue Blazer

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There isn’t much left of my wardrobe from five years ago. In those days, I was a corporate guy working in Chicago. I rotated two or three suits, sport coats, and countless long-sleeve dress shirts and pants for casual dress days. They are all history. I gave the clothing to local charities in Illinois and Arizona, because none of it fit me anymore. I mean that literally (I’ve lost forty pounds in those years), but also psychologically.

In late 2013 at age fifty-six, my body and mind were telling me corporate life didn’t suit me any longer. I needed to find a creative oasis before it was too late. I thought writing might be in my future, but I wasn’t sure. My husband and I planned our corporate exit strategy and left it all behind in early 2014. We began to seriously discuss creating a quieter life in a warmer climate.

As I shed weight and stress, I felt like a sculptor chiseling away the excess matter. I uncovered the writer inside of me. Ironically, with less of me in the picture, I discovered I had more to say about my family, my heritage, my sexuality and my home—and how these foundational components of my identity have shaped my experience and journey.

I’m proud of this transformation, the three books I’ve written and published, and the life Tom and I are molding in the Arizona desert—especially after we survived my heart attack during our move on the way west. But occasionally I need an intersection that melds the man I was with the man I’ve become.

That’s where this silk, 44-long, blue Oscar de la Renta blazer enters the story. I bought it at least ten years ago at a Chicago store. Whenever I wore it for work or play, I brought my best self. So, while all of my other suits and jackets from my Midwest life are gone, this was my favorite. I kept it for special occasions in my Arizona life.

Recently, I found a tailor near my new home. She tapered the waist and shortened the sleeves to suit my lighter build. Now my past and my present have come together.

I’m a lucky man indeed.