Tag: A Writer’s Life

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

 

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!

 

 

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

 

Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

***

To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.

 

 

 

 

 

Love is in the Air

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Don’t let anyone tell you the Sonoran Desert is dead in the Spring. While it’s true that there are no daffodils, tulips, peonies or crocuses to speak of or admire, the Palo Verde trees are ablaze in yellow. The bougainvillea are burgeoning. The cacti are blooming in abundance. Splashes of white, pink, purple, orange and red abound. Oh, and love is in the air. I mean that literally.

I was a snowbird visiting Arizona from Illinois five years ago, when I encountered my first two lovebirds under open skies. They were a couple of diminutive, rosy-faced parrots huddling and chirping in a palm tree high above, as my husband Tom and I played Scrabble near our condo pool. I was captivated by their vivid, multi-colored feathers and the tender way they preened each other.

Now that I’m a full-time resident of the Sonoran Desert, I’m still smitten. So much so that I felt my adrenalin surge recently as I captured this image with my telephoto lens:  another fanciful flock of lovebirds holding court high atop a palm tree in Vista del Camino Park near my home.

In the past week or so, I’ve come to realize that these gorgeous birds aren’t originally from Arizona. The lovebirds are natives of Africa. Namibia to be precise. According to several sources online, in the 1980s two colonies of them were cast aloft into Phoenix-area neighborhoods. One was the result of a monsoon storm that destroyed a local aviary. The others scattered when an owner decided he didn’t want to keep them anymore. He released them into Sonoran skies.

The good news is the lovebirds don’t pose a threat to native Arizona birds. They simply add to the color palette and have adapted to life in the Valley of the Sun over the past three decades. Apparently, the palm trees and temperatures here are similar to those in their African home. So, the lovebirds are comfortable living in the Sonoran Desert.

Coincidentally, last Saturday–with the lovebirds front and center in my psyche–I was wearing my “Love is Love” t-shirt. (Imagine the silhouettes of a herd of six rainbow-colored elephants–red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple–with their trunks happily intertwined above the three words and you’ve got the right idea.)

Anyway, Tom and I were strolling up and down the aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market. I was shopping for vegetables and fruits in my diversity-loving t-shirt. A woman I didn’t know, a vendor named Elizabeth, jumped out from behind her booth. She approached me with a loving, beaming smile. She insisted upon taking my photo in the “Love is Love” shirt. She wanted to send it to a friend back in Chicago, whose sixteen-year-old daughter had just come out to her.

Of course, I was happy to oblige since I’m gay and had lived in Chicago for most of my adult life. I told her I’d even bought the t-shirt at a Banana Republic store in Chicago on North Michigan Avenue. But more importantly, I know how frightening and challenging it is for a young person who’s gay, lesbian or transgendered to find their way. They need all the support they can get.

Yes, it’s Spring 2019, but even if you have a loving mom or dad, and community of people around you who believe “love is love” and treat you with respect, the world is still a complicated and often judgmental place.

Perhaps all of us–now as much as ever–need all the love and lovebirds we can get.

A New High Point

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There is a definite rhythm to writing. When it’s working, it’s as if you are conducting the full breadth of a finely tuned orchestra. But, when you are out of rhythm, you might as well be stomping on the toes of your favorite dance partner. It’s that painful.

At any rate, in January 2016—eighteen months before my husband and I moved to Scottsdale permanently—we escaped suburban Chicago to snowbird in the warmth of Arizona for a few precious months. I remember being concerned about messing up my writing rhythm. To complicate matters, I was fully immersed in the editing of my first book, From Fertile Ground, and unwinding the unending grief for Helen Johnson, my mother. I didn’t yet have a defined space for my writing or Helen’s past influence in our Arizona condo. I needed a trusty desk, like the one that supported my laptop in Illinois, and a few artifacts that would remind me of the mother I loved.

My husband Tom was sensitive to my dilemma. So, on a Tuesday morning a few days after we arrived in Scottsdale, we set out to find a suitable writing surface. We didn’t want to spend much. So, we opted to explore thrift stores in the area for a wooden desk that could fit under the window in our sunroom. It faces south.

I suppose I felt a little like Goldilocks as she searched for the right bed. Our first few stops produced nothing promising. The desks we encountered were too clunky, too small, too rickety, too ugly, too … wrong. I hadn’t found the one that was just right. But we decided to try one more place before calling it quits. We pulled into the Goodwill store on North Scottsdale Road.

Once inside, we filed our way up and down aisles of discarded ceramics, leftover lamps and sagging upholstered chairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a slightly scuffed, mid-sized, mid-century wooden desk. It was just the right size to fit in my creative space. The right price too—twenty dollars.

Tom and I flagged down a clerk. He helped us process the order and arrange for the delivery of our newfound desk. I paused to run my fingers across the desk’s smooth finish and pull open the top drawer. That’s where I discovered a small embossed plate with an ironic identifying inscription: Alma Desk Company, High Point, North Carolina.

In case you aren’t familiar with High Point, the town is the home furnishings capital of the United States. It also happens to be the birthplace of my mother. Here’s the remarkable part. At the time I found the desk in a resale shop more than two thousand miles from her birthplace, I was in the midst of completing a book about grieving Helen’s loss. Certainly, this was a prophetic signpost I couldn’t ignore. It was the right desk, blessed by the writing gods and—perhaps in some cosmic way—endorsed by my furniture-loving mother from the south.

I was convinced that this connection to Helen’s past would be the injection of continuity I needed to complete my book about her in Arizona, even though she never visited the Valley of the Sun. She never stood in awe of the spiky Sonoran saguaros. She never ambled down a quiet path at the Desert Botanical Garden on a Sunday morning to hear the mourning doves coo on crooked branches of Palo Verde trees. She never saw bighorn sheep climb to the top of this butte in the Phoenix Zoo and gaze east.

In this season of renewal, it feels right to acknowledge that my mother’s undaunted spirit and a sturdy High Point desk have helped sustain my creativity in Arizona. They–and a bighorn sheep standing tall in a much too complicated world–are with me on my writing journey.

Nothing Too Straight or Taxing

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Last Thursday, when my husband Tom and I greeted our Chicago friend Todd at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, we didn’t know if we’d have time to squeeze in a tour of Taliesin West during his week-long stay. We wanted to give Todd plenty of time to relax, read in the sun, swim in our condo pool, and watch our favorite movies together. But, because Todd is an architecture buff on vacation, an excursion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic desert laboratory in North Scottsdale was near the top of his “to do” list.

I’m happy to report that today–on Tax Day in the U.S.–we fulfilled Todd’s and our architectural cravings. We drove north to immerse ourselves in Wright’s organic architecture. Fortunately, there was nothing too taxing about the experience. Only fascinating historic anecdotes from Harriett our trusty guide, grand horizontal lines connecting common-sense design with rugged nature, peace-inducing Asian artifacts from Wright’s travels, and expansive Sonoran Desert views from his functional living space and bedroom that faced west.

We three gay men didn’t witness too many straight angles during our ninety-minute immersion into Wright’s desert home and design school either. Instead, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the geometric patterns that surrounded us … like these three triangles that line the entryway to the Cabaret Room where Wright and his third wife entertained guests in their mid-century oasis near the foot of the McDowell Mountains.

I can imagine a roomful of wide-eyed architecture students gathered there in 1950. Wright holding court with grateful guests. Telling stories and sipping drinks with left legs crossed over and right arms resting on long rows of theatrical red seats placed at acute angles.

Witness Taliesin West for yourself next time you visit the Valley of the Sun.  It’s a design treat in the desert. Best of all, you won’t find it too taxing.