The elementary and middle schools in Arizona were back in session this week.
Compared to my 1960s’ experience as a crew-cut kid of the St. Louis suburbs, it feels awfully early to return to the classroom. In those days, the first day of school arrived right after Labor Day.
Maybe I was atypical, but I was ready for school to start. I craved the structure and creative possibilities. Learning new things, reconnecting with classmates, and meeting my teacher propelled me into an annual, educational orbit.
I give my parents credit for promoting the importance and fun aspects of school. They made sure I slept enough every night and ate some sort of breakfast every morning (even when I resisted), before I caught the bus at the corner of South Yorkshire Drive and Laclede Station Road.
They also did their part to prompt me about homework assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, and encourage good grades.
The rest was up to me.
As I write this, it all sounds rather innocent, systematic, and idyllic. It was far from perfect, but definitely safer and less complicated. There were fewer distractions. Fewer problems. Fewer troublemakers. Fewer threats.
In that era, it felt like teachers, parents, community leaders, and kids were rowing in the same direction in the same boat.
Of course, there were conflicts, but generally I observed adults behaving with a modicum of mutual respect.
Certainly, that isn’t the case in 2022 in the United States of America.
I’m not giving up. I know there are excellent parents and teachers out there–guiding the adults of tomorrow, working to shield them from harm.
However, our educational institutions have frayed under societal pressures. Too often, we forget that our impressionable children and grandchildren are watching. We forget that they need guide rails, consistency, advocates, nurturing, and discipline to grow.
As we send our youngsters off to school again, we must teach them the truth–that science, math, history, literature, and the arts really do matter.
We must distinguish facts from lies. We must open their minds to the possibilities of life, so that they will develop the critical thinking skills they will need to function effectively in this ever-complicated world.
As we cross through the middle of May, it’s time to share the conclusion of the story of Millie, my neighbor, and our relationship that spanned twenty years Along the Back Fence.This story first appeared inAn Unobstructed View.
In the summer of 2016, I waved to Millie as I worked in my backyard. Frail and in her nineties, she was seated on a chair on her deck with Yolanda, her live-in caregiver, nearby.
Millie motioned to me to meet them by the back fence. With Yolanda at her side, it took a few minutes for Millie to navigate her way there. But there was never any doubt she would make it.
When she arrived, I leaned out to give her a hug and she rested her head on my shoulder. She told me she loved to admire the perennial blooms that came and went, but her gardening days were over. She simply didn’t have the physical energy for it anymore.
Nonetheless, she wanted to gift the only remaining rose bush in her yard to Tom and me, if I would dig it up from her side of the yard and find a place to transplant it in our backyard.
Though I didn’t know where we’d find room for the bush, I was touched by the gesture. I grabbed a shovel from the garage, wedged the toe of my shoe in the cyclone fence, and boosted myself over onto Millie’s lush lawn. Tom found our wheelbarrow and lifted it over too.
It took me nearly thirty minutes of digging before I could pry the stubborn bush out of the ground. But it finally succumbed. When I left Millie’s yard with the bush, I thanked her and gave her another hug and kiss on the cheek. We had come a long way from our early compost pile days.
“I love you guys,” she said.
“We love you too, Millie,” I assured her.
Before Tom and I moved the following summer, we waved to Millie a few more times from our backyard whenever we mowed our lawn and saw her perched on her deck, presiding over her floral-filled memories.
And the red rose bush–which we carefully transplanted alongside our driveway and propped up with tomato stakes and chicken wire–took root and bloomed before we departed.
We left it there for the new owners to enjoy.
It only seemed fitting.
In late October 2019, Kathy–another of our Mount Prospect, Illinois neighbors–called with sad, but inevitable, news. Millie had passed away, just a few months shy of her 100th birthday.
In May 2022, I fantasize that somewhere in a distant universe, Millie is preparing to serve up a Tupperware container filled with ambrosia salad for all her friends.
In reality, seventeen hundred miles west of my previous Illinois home, it is our Arizona neighbors who are about to be dazzled by a summer-long perennial display compliments of our double-red desert rose bush.
The arrival of this much-anticipated splash of brilliant color is something Millie would have loved.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I need more private time. This feels like an odd thing for me to admit, because–at one time–I would have considered myself a strong extrovert.
Now that I’ve been away from my consulting career for more than eight years, I realize I was more of an introvert all along. One who was good at solving problems, facilitating outcomes, and wearing a multitude of hats. I was required to be “on” far more than I wanted.
Finding the magic as a writer has been the result of tunneling in versus extending out. It’s been an exercise in spelunking … getting lost in caves of consciousness … then exploring that space.
This creative cocooning is an activity I love, and one I have become protective of. (Translated, that means I get grumpy when there are too many social demands on my time. I can imagine my husband nodding knowingly as I write this.)
Even so, there have been times over the past two years, when I’ve missed the human connections that many of us took for granted in a pre-pandemic world. For instance, reaching out to engage with readers in person or simply being in the same room with others to experience the impromptu moments of life.
On Friday night, I got a dose of the creative community I craved during the depths of the pandemic. Tom and I attended a Storyline SLAM event at Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix. The theme of the evening was Magic, so each story needed to include that component in one form or another.
The process was pretty loose. Organic might be a better word. Eight people–four before intermission, four after–took turns telling stories on stage in six-minute segments.
When each storyteller finished, five judges (sprinkled in the audience of one hundred) held up mini tote boards with a score. Thirty points were the most possible, because the highest and lowest scores, raised high by the judges, were tossed out.
Driving there, Tom and I knew there was an outside possibility that members of the audience could volunteer to tell their stories in the moment. So, I brought one of my books, An Unobstructed View, in the car–just in case I summoned the courage to get up on stage. The idea intrigued and petrified me.
I’ll cut to the chase. I wrote my name on a slip of paper when we got to the event. I dropped it into a box, where it might be drawn. And it was. As I chugged a glass of pinot noir and squirmed in my seat, I learned I would be number three on stage to tell a story.
When my turn arrived, the anxiety I felt was palpable. Still, I walked to the stage and stood before the mic. I opened my book to page 41 and began reading from a chapter titled The Best Ears of Our Lives. Here’s an excerpt of what I shared that night.
… in October 1998, I became a dog owner again. We found our family dog in an Arlington Heights pet store. A high-pitched bell at the top of the door jingled, signaling our arrival as we pushed through the entrance. Tom and I walked past a wall of cages containing an assortment of critters with doleful eyes tracking our every move. The noisiest of the bunch was a tri-colored basset hound puppy with a white-tipped tail, brown-and-white face, and voluminous black velvet ears. She barked, yelped, and wiggled near the latch of her cage as if to shout, “Look over here. Take me home. You will never find a better dog than me!”… I knew we had turned the page and a dog-eared corner. This tenacious pup had cast a spell on us.
For most of the next decade, Nick, Kirk, Tom, and I would write a chapter together, featuring our shared love for Maggie as the glue that would help us all bond. As Maggie’s body grew, her limbs spread, and her breathing deepened at night, our basset hound further infiltrated our lives. We would never be prepared for the day we’d have to let her go.
The crowd applauded. I smiled, exhaled, walked back to my chair, and sat next to Tom. He kissed me on the cheek. Moments later, my score appeared … 27 out of a possible 30. But the numbers really didn’t matter. It was simply the act of sharing my story and getting an immediate response that fueled happiness and relief.
When the evening ended, an exuberant lady (she told a fun and charismatic story about the magic of motherhood) won the Storyline SLAM event with a perfect score of 30. I finished third out of eight. Not bad for a last-minute decision by an introvert to take the stage.
Most of all, the experience reminded me to live for today in this uncertain world, but also to find the time and space to embrace and remember the magic. It can appear in any form–long velveteen ears on an autumn day or an improbable six minutes on stage in the spring–when we least expect it.
Kirk and I talked this morning. Every few weeks–usually on Sunday mornings–we connect via phone.
My thirty-three-year-old son is a kind counselor, who lives in Chicago. He lives a full, demanding life. He has navigated the Covid years on his own. I continue to do my best to bolster him from afar.
I always look forward to our conversations. Kirk tells me what’s happening in his world. I tell him what’s happening in mine. He’s planning a trip to Portugal at the end of March with a friend. The trip has been postponed twice due to the global pandemic. We both hope the third time is the charm.
Kirk is the adventurer in our family. He volunteered with the Peace Corps–taught English to children in Vanuatu on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific–in 2014 and 2015. He hasn’t traveled abroad since then due to Covid and career demands.
I admire Kirk’s sense of wonder. He told me he’s missed the opportunity to explore new worlds; to get lost in unfamiliar cultures. I could hear the loss in his voice.
While news of the war in Ukraine rages on, and we global citizens are catapulted into the uncertainty of another international drama, I think it’s likely that many will deny or try to forget the pain of the past two years. But we can’t and we shouldn’t.
At the very least, each of us must have a personal reckoning to account for the pain, anxiety, disruption, and multitude of losses. This is something I’ve contemplated for a while. This weekend it has surfaced more clearly.
During my conversation with Kirk, I recounted my Saturday with Tom. I told him I sang with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus pals at the Melrose Street Fair. It’s a lively community event in Phoenix that has gone missing for two years–for obvious reasons.
As I stood on the stage yesterday on a partly sunny and breezy morning–with Tom and a group of our close friends watching and listening–the last two years came flooding back.
Why? Because our chorus performed at the same event two years ago. It was right before the world stopped spinning and we all retreated. I will always remember the pain of that. None of us knew the magnitude and length of the tidal wave of fear and uncertainty that was coming. Somehow, we endured.
Yesterday’s moment was one to embrace and celebrate. Like a long, lost friend missing in action, the world felt suddenly alive as we sang. I wasn’t sure when or if I would feel that free again. But I did.
As I retold this story to Kirk on the phone, my tears appeared out of nowhere. The full emotion of Saturday’s reawakening arrived on Sunday morning with my younger son listening attentively seventeen hundred miles away.
Though it wasn’t in person, I am thankful that Kirk and I had a few moments of reckoning together. Like all of us who have lived through the darkness, we have earned the time and space to reflect and process all of the madness.
I hope my son is able to re-ignite his passion for travel in Portugal and find a little solace … maybe even realize a dream in an unfamiliar place in late March.
Ironic or not, one of the songs our chorus sang yesterday was Come Alive from The Greatest Showman. Let the lyrics wash over you and rekindle your best instincts. We have all earned the reckoning.
And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you could ever be,
’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.
And you know you can’t go back again to the world that you were livin’ in,
In the dog days, our community cat gets top billing. From the crook of our gnarled fig tree, Poly waits to swat an unsuspecting finch ready to extract seeds.
Staring me down through our den window, Poly assumes this enviable position at seven o’clock a few mornings each week. I tap on the glass to dissuade her. I can’t bear to see a finch fall or for Poly to end up behind bars.
On other days, Poly plays it safe. After the sprinklers stop hissing, she rests on the ground in the shade under the eaves or cavorts with her taffy-colored feline friend.
Poly is that hard-to-corral library book I don’t own, filling each page with texture and character. As summer winds down, she plots in the catbird seat. I don’t want our chapters to end, but someday soon I suspect they will.
I love sharing the company of friends and devouring the sweet, creamy goodness of a wedge of cake. When they appear in the same space at the same time–in this case celebrating the launch of my latest book on Sunday, March 28–that’s a perfect day.
One of the Polynesian Paradise board members invited me to talk about I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree and sell and sign copies of my book. He even picked and gathered a half dozen lemons from the tree near our front door and placed them in a bowl on a table in the front of the condo clubhouse.
So there I was, seated at the front of the room, at the table with the lemons and copies of my books at two o’clock on Palm Sunday. Outside, through the glass, I could see children and adults splashing and playing in the pool, framed by palm trees. Inside about thirty-five neighbors and friends sat and stood, fanned across the room before me.
With my husband Tom, older son Nick, and his girlfriend Aida observing in the front row, I had that moment every writer dreams of. I had the rare opportunity to read a few stories from my latest book out loud. I had the chance to talk about why I love to write about the things I do: nature, family, community, and life’s serendipitous moments.
It was a remarkable and unexpected thrill, made possible by the acceleration of vaccinations across the country and in our condo community. Those in attendance even signed and gave me a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion. Tom and I will pop the cork on that at a later date, just to remember the moment once again.
Without question, we have come a long way in one year. We’ve felt the pain, the losses, and the sadness. We’ve done our best to endure the social retreat. I know this pandemic isn’t over, but the numbers of cases and deaths have diminished. Life is better now. Thanks to science and the availability of vaccines, we’ve begun to reemerge.
It sure feels great to see friends and to socialize again … and to eat cake.
In March, most of the United States springs forward, switches to Daylight Savings Time, and loses an hour until fall. But not here in Arizona. Time stands still in the Grand Canyon State.
I like the continuity of our steady clock. It’s one less adjustment to make in a world of constant change. This morning, I grabbed my digital camera and took a one-hour walk–the same amount of time lost elsewhere last Sunday–and photographed south Scottsdale.
These are the best images I captured in my community on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. It was a cool, quiet stroll along the Crosscut Canal. The pictures tell the story. There is plenty to love about Arizona. This is where time stands still, but life goes on.
Though the title might lead you to believe otherwise, this is not one of those dusty western stories. You know, where the good guy returns to the scene of the crime for revenge against the villain and they duel it out in front of a saloon?
Instead, this is a much simpler, quieter tale about one man–me–beginning to take his shrunken life back a day after the United States surpassed half a million COVID-19-related deaths. (Incidentally, if you are like me, you are wondering if the decline in new cases and hospitalizations are harbingers of the waning days of a global pandemic or a mere lull, a mirage in the desert that has seduced us to believe some of us may actually escape after all.)
It had been nearly a year since I swam laps at Eldorado Pool in south Scottsdale. It exists about a mile from our condo. Before March 2020, it was a place I frequented three or four times a week. Of course, COVID-19 was the villain or at least the culprit that has kept me from going there for nearly twelve months.
Today, on Tuesday, February 23, 2021 I returned to this place that soothes and energizes my body and spirit. I wrote a new chapter gliding in the water. That consisted of thirty minutes in lane eleven of our thirteen-lane, Olympic-size, community pool.
I was one of about a dozen swimmers in the pool at ten o’clock this morning. We were a lucky twelve, cupping our hands to push through cool water under sixty-five-degree blue skies, far from the snow and bluster that has consumed most of the United States recently.
There were a few familiar faces, like Frank’s. He smiled, asked how my winter has been, and if I’d been working on a new book. His question reminded me how long it had been since we had talked, how much we hadn’t discussed, how little he knew of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, and how much I had missed the connected pieces of my life … like swimming in a community pool, trading stories face-to-face with friends, realizing that the few added pounds around my middle can be shed easily by recapturing this strand of my life a few times a week. One lap at a time.
My swimming is over for the day. Now, outside the pool, I hold my breath–like most of the rest of the world–and wait. I am one of those under sixty-fivers (just barely) ready to be vaccinated, ready to schedule it as soon as I can, ready to recapture more strands of my life, ready to return to a world that once felt familiar.
Now that I have published I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I feel like an empty-nester. All of the nurturing and sculpting is over. My purpose and attention has shifted from writer to salesman.
There is nothing too surprising about that. The frustrating part is that we are living in the middle of a global pandemic. There are limited opportunities–none, really–for the face-to-face interactions I crave with readers. I don’t have a chance to talk about my books with people. Because I am mostly an extrovert–though much less so as I’ve gotten older–I miss that terribly. The only legitimate opportunities for authors to promote and sell their books are online.
Even so, on Wednesday afternoon, I manufactured a little of my own author interaction. I drove to the Scottsdale Public Library. I donated a copy of my latest book for its Local Author bookshelf. This is something I’ve done three times before.
Previously, this act was followed by a physical Local Author Book Sale, where readers and authors meet. (To replace the in-person fair, there is an online local authors talk series conducted through our library. I missed the deadline for submitting a video to participate. I was focused on finishing and publishing my fourth book.)
While at the library I spoke with Wen-Ling, a pleasant woman who coordinates some of the local author activities for the library. From one side of a glass partition I described my latest book to Wen-Ling and my passion for writing memoirs. She told me the staff hopes to reinstitute the Local Author Book Sale in 2022.
After our interaction, I found my energy. I raced back to the parking lot to my car to find a bookmark for Wen-Ling and postcard with information about my books. I returned to the library information desk, placed my printed materials on the counter, and waved to her. Wen-Ling was helping another patron, but from behind her mask she thanked me for donating my book. I smiled back and said goodbye.
It was a simple exchange, and the kind of thing I used to take for granted in our pre-COVID-19 world. But all of that has changed now. As Tom and I–and most of us in the world–wait to be vaccinated, I will continue to look for small ways to stay engaged. Whether I’m there for a mini book chat or just trying to stay healthy on the treadmill of life, I will always need to find ways to connect with those around me.
Sonoran Desert December days dazzle. Gone are dreary skies, icy gusts, swirling flurries, clanging Salvation Army bells, and busy Windy City sidewalk years wearing topcoats and backpacks. Still earlier, shedding St. Louis jackets and stocking caps. Hanging them on cloak room hooks before school started. Dreaming of holiday cupcakes and Santa’s flight trajectory.
Arizona’s anonymous set designer has replaced them. Sparkling sun burns off the chill of the morning. A neighbor’s pink rose blooms and brightens the walk. A flock of chirpy lovebirds dash away on cue like pent-up kids scampering out the door for recess. Playful palms shimmer and brush the sand from the sky. Granting the splendor of December revisited.