Five years ago, Tom and I signed the papers, closed the deal, and passed the keys of our Illinois home to the new owners, a thirty-something, Turkish-American couple with a six-year-old son.
It was a pivotal personal moment–a cocktail of joy, relief, sentiment, and sadness–as we walked out the door and prepared to begin our next chapter in our cozy Arizona condo.
Of course, it was just the start of our journey. Before we left on June 30, 2017, we captured this selfie in front of our Mount Prospect home with a sign that was a parting gift from a friend.
The sign came west with us. Later that summer, someone took it from the front of our Arizona condo. I never discovered what happened to it.
Suffice it to say, the spirit of the sign lives on in my heart and on the pages of my third book, An Unobstructed View. It’s an honest reflection on my Illinois years and the early days of my life as a heart attack survivor.
I sat in our Arizona sunroom and read the prologue again earlier this week. I’m thankful I found the creative resolve to reconstruct vivid memories from that watershed period. Friends and strangers have told me the book moved them.
Four years have passed since I published the book. I’m a much different person now. Less patient, more compassionate with a greater awareness of life’s fragility. I’m also more adept at living in the present.
That’s what a serious, sudden illness will do for you. You learn that tomorrow isn’t a given. You discover yoga and how to be mindful. You relish the quiet. You notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you.
You give thanks for simple but vital things–breathing, a strong heart, a loving husband, friends and family near and far, affordable healthcare, and an array of nearby doctors … and you also find a deeper appreciation for those who have loved and supported you along the way.
If you are reading this, you probably fall into this last category. Thank you for joining me on this journey. These first five years in Arizona have proven to be creative ones, and–with time–I’ve found greater equilibrium and new friendships I hold dear.
Given the state of our world, I think it’s also important to hold true to our beliefs and voice our opinions and concerns.
In that spirit, I’ll always advocate for human rights … life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … for all Americans no matter their skin color, cultural ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
It’s not unusual for the proximity of neighbors to cause conflicts.
But often the bonds we forge with those next door–or in this case along the back fence–can add more texture and meaning to our lives than we once imagined.
Shortly after Tom and I moved west, I wrote Along the Back Fence about Millie–our Illinois neighbor from 1996 to 2017.
I’ve been thinking of her again recently, because the fifth anniversary of selling my Midwestern home is approaching.
This story first appeared in An Unobstructed View, a book about my personal journey from Illinois to Arizona in 2017 and an unexpected detour that awaited in the city where I was born.
In this world of turmoil and uncertainty, our best neighbors deliver color, comfort, and continuity.
I bet there’s a Millie in your life worth remembering.
Long before I arrived at my Mount Prospect home, Millie loved her garden and the hibiscus plants she and her husband had planted on the other side of the back fence.
But when I first met my neighbor Millie in the summer of 1996, her husband had been gone for a few years and the exotic flowers were waning too. She was alone and lonely in her mid-seventies, but not in a quiet and retiring way. There was plenty of fight left in Millie.
It wasn’t an auspicious start for the two of us. I had begun to create a small compost pile in the far corner of my yard. She wasn’t happy about it–too many decomposing grass clippings and small spruce branches in one place she thought. In her view, I had created a mess.
When she complained about the smell that had started brewing there, I scrapped the idea and placed the yard materials by the curb for the next trash pickup. I didn’t want to alienate Millie. I didn’t want to contribute to her unhappiness.
I don’t think we had much to say to one another over the next few months. Only a quick hello here or there as I pushed my mower around my yard, and she tended to her garden that wrapped around her detached garage.
Eventually, we broke the ice. From one side of the fence, she told me about her love of roses. From the other, I introduced her to my sons and then Tom. After that, we found firm footing.
By the fall of 1998, Maggie was in the picture. I remember Millie leaning over to pet our dog’s voluminous ears. Millie would cradle Maggie’s head on either side when the dog placed her paws along the back fence. “How is that Maggie today?” she would ask. Our droopy-eyed pet had won her heart too.
Over time, Millie got to know more members of my family. One summer afternoon, Tom and I decided to invite Millie over for a backyard barbecue. My mother was visiting us from St. Louis.
Both Mom and Millie were gardeners. There was plenty for them to discuss about the flowers they had grown, nurtured, and cherished over the years. Not to mention the yummy three-bean salad Millie had whipped together in a jiffy.
“Next time I’ll bring my ambrosia salad,” Millie told us. “Everyone loves it!”
And there was a next time the following year. Tom’s mom and dad joined us from the other side of Mount Prospect. Sure enough, Millie brought her signature salad of mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, and shredded coconut to compliment the relatively ordinary burgers and hot dogs we grilled that afternoon.
That was the last of our three-bean-and-ambrosia-salad moments with the older set. The seasons passed and so did our parents–Tom’s dad in 2012, my mom in 2013, Tom’s mom in 2015.
But Millie survived them all. She heard about each of our losses along the back fence. It gave me comfort to meet her there, though our encounters became few and far between as her own health–her own surefootedness–declined …
Rest assured, I’ll share part two of this story later this week.
Today marks four years since I began my blogging adventure and obsession.
When I launched this website May 4, 2018, I wanted to promote my books and develop a greater literary presence online. Over time, that goal has been superseded by a desire to share topical stories about the extraordinary, meaningful moments and people that cross through one ordinary life.
It’s been no simple task nurturing my creativity in this chaotic world. Blogging has given voice to my memories, ideas, values, observations, and opinions. More than that, in my sixties it has become the organic structure I need to stay sharp, sane, hopeful, and whole.
Most definitely, blogging was my salvation during the height of the pandemic. The whimsical and serious tales I spun at my laptop became fodder for my fourth book about two gay men forging a new life in the Sonoran Desert.
This post is #324. That’s an average of eighty-one stories per year or nearly seven each month. Written at all hours of the day and night. Concocted in all sorts of moods: happy, sad, angry, reflective, devastated, and triumphant.
Thank you for joining me on this circuitous journey. If you follow me, you know I often share poetry. Frequently, I like to include photos that ignite and inspire an idea that might otherwise never have surfaced.
For nearly thirty years, I’ve written poems and stashed them in an expanding file. It’s a body of work that encompasses the highs and lows of six-and-a-half decades and chronicles the profound role nature plays in our everyday existence.
As I approach my 65th birthday in July, I feel an impulse to publish a collection of my most vivid poems. Would such a chapbook interest you? As you ponder that question, I hope you enjoy reading this verse.
When I wrote it May 7, 2016, Tom and I were Midwesterners–more familiar with blooming iris and peonies than spiky cacti and monsoon rains.
As an Illinois resident on the threshold of more change than I could imagine, I wanted to remember the imagery of past Mays.
My, our world has changed.
Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.
Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.
Blooming iris, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.
Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled peonies pink allure.
Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.
Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.
It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.
At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.
After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.
For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.
The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.
It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.
When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.
Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.
I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.
About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.
Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.
I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.
Writing is my thing. Not arithmetic. It has never been my forte. Going way back to 8th grade, I was lost in algebra class. That precipitated a math do-over in 9th grade.
Nonetheless, I realize we live in a number-centric society. Keeping track of and understanding numbers allows us to measure progress or lack there of.
Of course, the most obvious and disheartening example these days is the accelerating number of COVID cases and deaths, thanks to the Delta variant and a disturbing number of Americans who are still unwilling to get vaccinated for their sake and those around them.
But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the personal side of math–when you find yourself counting life’s numbers and celebrating the love, commitment, and longevity they represent.
Today marks 25 years since Tom and I met. In this ever-changing society, I’m proud of that significant number, though it pales when compared with the total our neighbors Mary and Earl have accumulated. They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary in October.
At any rate, Tom and I are thankful to be together for a quarter of a century. We’re escaping the summer heat of Scottsdale to spend a few cooler nights in a cozy B&B in Flagstaff, a mountain community we love.
We’re like a lot of gay couples in the sense that we remember and celebrate 2 anniversaries: the day (August 17, 1996) we met and the day (September 6, 2014) almost 7 years ago when we were married in an outdoor courtyard on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in Illinois, surrounded by 60 friends and family members.
In 1996, we didn’t imagine it would ever be legal in the United States for same-sex couples to marry and receive equal rights to those of straight ones. The idea of marriage equality was barely a whisper. Less than 2 decades later it became a reality thanks to a movement we fully endorsed … proof of an astonishing, positive shift supported by a majority of American people.
In the time since Tom and I met at a northwest suburban Chicago gay bar, we have emerged from a hidden life to an open one. Along the way, we have counted life’s numbers.
Collectively, in the past 25 years we have: raised and counseled my 2 boys into adulthood; loved and lost 1 adorable basset hound and 1 crafty cockatiel; cared for and buried 3 of our parents; endured 36 years in the workforce; vacationed in 4 European countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and 10 or 12 American states; watched our favorite baseball teams win 3 World Series (2 for my St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011; 1 for Tom’s Chicago Cubs in 2016); written and published 5 books; and survived 1 mild heart attack during 1 cross-country move. As I write this, we continue to navigate our way through 1 global pandemic that won’t end.
Of course, the glue that keeps our relationship going isn’t really about the numbers. It’s in the love and laughter we share, the relationships we’ve formed with friends and neighbors, the hundreds of movies we’ve watched together, the countless Scrabble games we’ve played over coffee, the unexpected hospital visits we’ve negotiated, the quieter moments reading and writing we protect; and the sense of day-in-day-out respect, comfort, and security we provide one another.
When it comes to the most important relationship in my life, it makes perfect sense why I’m not a math guy. I simply can’t put a number or value on the love Tom and I share, the hurdles we’ve cleared, and the successes we’ve realized.
Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.
I began this blogging odyssey three years ago today by publishing my list of memoir writing tips. I had no grand plans or notions of what this would become, who I might meet in the blogosphere, or how frequently I would post. (This is #242. That’s more than eighty posts a year since May 4, 2018.) I simply wanted to exercise my voice, promote my books, and share observations about my new life in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
But this experience has turned into much more than a lengthy chronicle of disparate topics. It has become a public place for me to examine the beauty of nature, the geographic grandeur and social diversity of the Grand Canyon State, the importance of family and community, the realities of aging and grief, the fright and implications of a global pandemic, the humor and irony of everyday occurrences, and the creative possibilities of a literary life.
Some of you have followed this space for multiple years, left frequent and encouraging comments, and even read a few of my books. Others have joined this journey recently. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am grateful for the time you have devoted to my writing and connections we’ve made. Thank you. This rose is for you.
There have been days since February–especially after completing my latest book–when I have realized my brain needed a rest. Given the energy and time commitment required, I wondered if this blog had run its course. However, today as I write this, I can’t imagine living without this forum. It is a strand of my life that keeps my vital and relevant.
Composing and sharing stories from my laptop–and peppering them with images and poetry from time to time too–is an important part of my identity. It is my passion. I need this authentic (though remote) social connection. I want to continue to be a part of the dialogue. Most important, I want to call attention to the simple joys of living and the healing aspects of nature, which often are overlooked.
Going forward, I don’t know how often I will post. But, as in the past, I will speak my mind, test story ideas, pay tribute to a rare person or defining moment, dabble in short fiction (which I began to do in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree), and explore the implications of everything from a personal joy to a national sorrow.
I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey and comment when the mood strikes … no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.
This week marks five years since I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground. In celebration of the anniversary of my entry into this literary life, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from March 24 through 28. What follows is the story of what brought me to this moment. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope reading this will provide a little added encouragement.
If you look and listen closely—and breathe deeply—you will find spring stirring in the Sonoran Desert. Sweet and fragrant orange blossoms dance through the air. Lizards and ground squirrels reemerge to scamper and soak up the sun. A hummingbird darts and twitters in a Palo Verde tree. I imagine a lone loon, descending from a blue sky, is practicing for his pilot license. He receives clearance from nearby Sky Harbor Airport traffic control and lands with a graceful whoosh that ripples in the Crosscut Canal. A monarch butterfly flits and rests on a bud near the fence of the Desert Botanical Garden, pausing long enough for me to creep in for a closeup of nature’s transformation.
This central Arizona winter-to-spring progression is a warmer, dryer, more gradual shift—a far cry from the flurry, upheaval, and calm of a midwestern lion-to-lamb experience I had been accustomed to for my first sixty years. Nonetheless, it is a March metamorphosis.
Five years ago, like a clumsy butterfly, I emerged from my own cocoon. At age fifty-eight, I launched my first book From Fertile Ground. I remember the anticipation and anxiety of March 24, 2016—the day my book emerged—as I moved from wannabe writer to published author.
I felt exhilaration. It was as if I were boarding a rollercoaster, gripping the bar tightly, grinning ear to ear, throwing my arms in the air, and shouting “Look over here” as my book entered the literary universe. Maybe I sound immodest, but it was and is such a thrill to have discovered this better-late-than-never renaissance.
Previously, as a busy single dad and on-the-go communication professional, the idea of writing on my own terms seemed like a faraway neverland of creative euphoria. But slowly, as I drifted from the gravitational force of my previous orbit, I felt the magnetic pull of an artistic life.
This literary life sprung from a personal void, molded from the fog of my grief after my mother died in January 2013. At that point, I was lost with plenty of tears, but without the language of emotion that normally came easily for me.
Fortunately, I was not alone on my journey. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my husband and a skilled therapist, I forged ahead, jotted notes in my diary, took a few nature photography classes, and slowly stepped away from a thirty-four-year advertising, PR, and consulting career. It had sustained my bank account and carried me through leans years of single fatherhood, but ultimately drained my energy and creativity.
Early on, after my corporate “retirement” there were moments of doubt and uncertainty to contend with. Even so, the more I wrote in my journal, the more I felt my voice begin to emerge. Within a few months, my writing and reading led me out of the darkness into the light.
A litany of wisdom-filled letters my mother sent me—along with a boxful of more than fifty years of diaries my grandfather left behind—spurred my creative impulses. I sequestered myself and perused them all. They spoke to me and my love of family, heritage, and history.
One day in 2014, as I turned the yellowing pages of my grandfather’s rural life—his spartan existence—an idea surfaced in my brain. It told me to weave a tale of three writers telling their stories across the generations, leaving behind a trail of their own words. In that moment, I found a new passion. From Fertile Ground was born. So was my life as an author. I prepared to emerge from my cocoon.
A year of daily soul-searching, writing and editing passed. In late 2015, I finished my manuscript. With the help of a friend, I found an editor and graphic designer—Anna and Sam—who came highly recommended. They both lived and worked in Nashville, Tennessee.
Instinctively, I liked hiring professionals with connections to the South, because much of my story shared a border with Tennessee to the east—in the rolling red earth of rural North Carolina. That is where my mother was born, where my grandparents owned a farm, and where my sister and I frolicked and spent parts of our summers in the 1960s.
Anna provided me with her recommended edits in January 2016. Following that, I collaborated with Sam. With my input, he created the cover for my book, designed the interior pages, formatted the text, and loaded it into the Amazon self-publishing software.
By late March 2016, I held the first copy of my book in hand. Friends and acquaintances began to send notes telling me they enjoyed reading my book and were moved by it. It was a joyous period in my life, far from the tears and fog that had preceded it just a few years before.
I take long walks in the desert and collect photos to stir my imagination. I marvel at the beauty and continuity of nature that surrounds me. I give thanks for the gift of life in a warm and rugged place.
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.
In late October 1997, I traveled from Chicago to Cleveland to co-facilitate a diversity training course for managers of a large financial institution.
Charles was the lead consultant on the project. We had teamed up before. He was black and straight. I was white and gay.
I felt inspired, watching him begin the session, explain the merits of an inclusive workforce, and preach the business rationale for embracing diversity.
The idea was to challenge the bank’s managers to respectfully acknowledge and maximize the differences of employees: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, religious and cultural beliefs.
By maximizing the mosaic of its differences, the company would be better equipped to create a more collaborative, welcoming culture that would produce happier employees who could more effectively understand and reflect the needs of diverse customers. I believed every bit of it. I still do.
Charles’ dark skin color was obvious, but perhaps my sexual orientation wasn’t. I typically didn’t divulge my gayness, unless the training warranted it.
At one point, a male manager stood up. He said he believed gay people were immoral. He thought they didn’t deserve respect or equal treatment.
The room of forty managers and two facilitators froze. Somewhere inside, despite my anger, I mustered the words and focus to break the silence and challenge his thinking. Essentially, I said something like the following:
“I’m gay and I don’t believe I’m immoral. I can assure you there are lots of gay employees you work with you, who feel the same way. If they don’t feel respected here, they’ll take their talents elsewhere.”
The manager sat down and mumbled a few comments under his breath. The training continued. Charles smiled. He took the training reigns and proceeded without missing a beat.
It was a watershed moment for me in my personal development and professional life to have the opportunity to defend myself–all LGBTQ people, really–and feel the support of a trusted colleague.
In 1997, I never imagined that one day I would live in a country where it would be legal for two men or two women to marry each other. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to marry the man I love. But, remarkably, it happened.
On September 6, 2014, Tom and I were married before about sixty of our family and close friends. It was a shiny, crisp afternoon in Illinois.
Our sisters walked us down the aisle. Though she was ailing, Tom’s mother made it. She wore the paisley silk scarf we bought for her in Florence, Italy.
Tom and I were surrounded by sunflowers, smiles and a few tears that day. Six years have passed. Though all four of our parents have been gone for five years, with every passing season–with every highlight, loss or moment of vulnerability–our love has grown deeper. I’m thankful for that.
Despite marriage equality in the United States, we now live in a country with a president who believes it’s “un-American” to be different. A few days ago he directed the White House Office of Management and Budget to prevent federal agencies from spending money on diversity training.
I don’t know where this chapter in American history will lead us, but I have faith this dark period will end soon. We are a country founded on the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of its people.
Even with all of the hateful comments of the past four years, I think the majority of Americans still believe in freedom and equality. We’ll find out in November.