Tag: Creative Writing

A Writer’s Plight and a Dog Named Lassie

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I try to write everyday. Sometimes, with other priorities–frequent doctor appointments, an aggressive exercise schedule, Tuesday night chorus rehearsals, Friday morning gentle yoga, spontaneous outings and coffee catch-ups with friends–there isn’t enough time for Tom and me devote to our literary pursuits or to simply escape the daily demands of our world. (Oh, perhaps you don’t know. My husband’s also a writer and film aficionado too.)

Anyway, we and our creative schemes … our true and false story ideas … persevere. That’s what it means to be an artist of any kind. You’re a romantic soul in it for the long haul and the creative chase. Familiar with both the trauma of the blank page and the exhilarating light bulb inspirations. Always pursuing that glorious day when your first or next book is finally published. For the moments when someone tells you he or she read your book, was moved by it, enlightened by its observations, chuckled a few times, and ultimately felt sad to see it end.

For all of these reasons and motivations, I like to keep my mind greased and oiled. A scribble on a sticky note. An entry in a journal. A brief blog post. One hour of writing and editing here. Two hours squeezed in there. A kernel of an idea that could only be a poem. A prolonged dive into a piece of fiction that needs nurturing. Three hours of uninterrupted time away from the world to expand and refine story ideas for a book about living in Arizona, which I hope to publish in the next year or so.

When I really tunnel into my writing universe, you’d be hard pressed to capture my attention unless our condo’s on fire, the St. Louis Cardinals are playing a game on TV or there’s a Breaking News item that is actually breaking and truly newsworthy.

Yet there are personal unplanned moments–life itself–outside the normal course of any day that take precedence. Like last Wednesday evening, when our neighbor Rhea called to say she and her husband Dan had made a difficult decision. They realized it was time to put down their beloved Lassie, a senior Sheltie with an indomitable heart and spirit. The dog with a checkered past had finally lost its fight with an inoperable tumor.

I didn’t take long for Tom or me to remember what it felt like to lose a pet, a helpless member of the family. Nearly twelve years ago, on Groundhog Day 2008, we made that same difficult decision when our basset hound Maggie succumbed to a series of seizures. We knew it was her time to go when she wouldn’t eat or lift her head to lick the pancake syrup off a plate on the floor. Just as it was Lassie’s time to cross the Rainbow Bridge on January 15, 2020.

So, on the morning of January 16 … a cloudy day in the Valley of the Sun after my seventeenth of twenty superficial radiotherapy sessions to treat that spot on my left hand which appears to be healing nicely … we stopped everything else in our lives for two minutes to arrive on Rhea’s and Dan’s doorstep, give them a few hugs, a plate of muffins, much-needed encouragement, and a pat or two for their remaining sweet Maltese named Mickey.

We were happy to be there for our neighbors in need. They’re full-time Arizona neighbors … an older couple in our community of snowbird friends … who hosted us for a  Christmas Day dinner last month and continually support my literary exploits. More important, they gave years of unconditional love to a forlorn and frightened Lassie after her previous owner had passed away several years ago and left the dog behind.

But true to their caring and considerate natures, Rhea and Dan stepped in and solved that problem. They rescued Lassie, helped ease her pain, lavished her with treats and kisses, adorned her fur with bows, and miraculously rekindled her trusting personality during her last years so that she would eventually approach and greet passersby and enjoy their company.

As you can see, as much as I need to continue to write about writing … and I will from time to time … what started as a story of an author’s quest to manage his time has really become a more meaningful tale about two dog lovers and the positive impact that an animal can have in an otherwise complicated and harsh world.

Here’s to all the courageous and compassionate animal lovers in our world. Especially Rhea and Dan, who gave late-in-life shelter to a Sheltie named Lassie: a loyal and lovable friend they will never forget.

 

 

 

 

Another January

There are few certainties in life, but certainly January will always be a difficult month for me. It will always be the dreaded thirty-one days at the start of the year when grief reappears. When grief rattles my brain and reminds me of the final moments of my mother’s life on January 26, 2013, when grief introduced the real culprit: the void that took her place.

Strangely writing these sentences comforts me, just as writing From Fertile Ground–the story of my journey with grief–comforted me in 2015 when I needed it most. Just as reading this passage from my book (written nearly five years ago on January 27, 2015) comforted me this morning when I woke up at 3:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

My mother was cremated. About a week after she died in January 2013, I drove to pick up her remains.

When I arrived at the Illinois Cremation Society in Downers Grove, the attendant greeted me with a sheepish smile and carefully handed me the mahogany urn. You would think this experience would have cued tears and deep sadness within me, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt a quiet sense of purpose and a strange jolt of adrenalin. Maybe that was just another side effect of my grief.

Without hesitating, I tucked Mom’s remains under my arm, left the building, opened the passenger door of my 2012 Hyundai Sonata, and placed the container on the floor of the front seat. I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of putting Mom’s ashes on the seat itself and then facing the possibility that they might spill everywhere if I had to stop suddenly.

I scooted around to the driver’s side, opened my door, turned the key to start the engine, and sighed. This would be my final drive with my mother. Now some sadness was beginning to creep in.

Ironically, Mom never rode in this car when she was alive. I had bought it just eight months before, when she was already sliding deep into her physical decline. However, I remember one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 2012.

I was pushing Mom in her wheelchair, circling the Brighton Gardens grounds where she lived. She was wearing her powder blue baseball cap and green, cable-knit cardigan sweater. We completed one or two laps around the building and paused a few times to reflect and chat about my job, my sons, where I might be traveling next on business.

Before we headed back inside, I took a slight detour to the other side of the parking lot where my new car was parked. As we approached the car, I stopped near the right rear bumper and applied the wheelchair brake, so she could get a closer look within the limits of her macular degeneration.

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

Tom and I still drive our 2012 Hyundai Sonata. It’s served us well over the past seven-and-a-half years. Most important, it got us to Arizona in July 2017 when everything else in our life seemed to go haywire.

Mom lived to be eighty-nine. Ironically, the odometer on our trusty indigo sedan is about to surpass 89,000 miles. I don’t know how many more years it will last. Though we change the oil regularly and do a decent job maintaining it, the upholstery is showing wear. The steering column creaks whenever we hit a bump. I need to take it to the dealer to check that out. It probably needs new shock absorbers too.

But other than a few hours of sleep, all isn’t lost. I have a good life in Arizona. Mom would have been happy for Tom and me … living in a warmer climate, sharing the joys and pains together, making new friends, holding onto those who’ve been with us all along the way, watching my sons evolve into the kind and productive adults their grandmother always knew they would be, telling my stories from the desert, coping with life’s misfortunes and maladies, doing my best to survive another January without her.

 

 

 

 

What Remains

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I stroll past January leaves, what clings to deciduous trees.

I count the crackles and rustles, what whispers to be heard.

I recall the quest of the fallen, what paths they chose to follow.

I know which stories are true, what remains in the autumn of life.

 

By Mark Johnson, January 5, 2020

 

 

Saguaro Scars

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I don’t expect to live 150 or 200 years, the span of a saguaro cactus. Yet it inspires me to follow its lead. To reach for the Sonoran sky. To transcend the inevitable scars of life that appear on exposed appendages. Perhaps perpetuated by a thirsty woodpecker. In my case, it’s a spot of invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand. A patch that’s beginning to heal.

***

The temperature gauge in my Sonata read forty-one degrees as I pulled into the Omni Dermatology parking lot at eight this morning. Chilly for us desert rats. Though my Midwestern sensibility reminded me of January mornings in arctic Illinois when the cilia in my nostrils froze as I shoveled snow and inhaled subzero oxygen.  A badge of honor for what I endured to earn a living.

Kind Claudia greeted me. Amanda’s replacement for the holidays. First treatment of 2020. Number eleven of twenty overall. More than halfway home. I handed her my blended bifocals in exchange for a less stylish pair of protective goggles, blue flak jacket and matching collar. Ready for another round in the radiotherapy barcalounger.

Claudia applied cool gel for the ultrasound. More flecks of green gremlins on the screen than before. Healthy cells populating where the darkness had been. Cheering from the sidelines. Newfangled therapy bowl game. All that matters is the final score.

Next stop. Secured square metal plate with a hole in the middle. Taped and surrounding the culprit. Quiet conversation with Claudia to hold us in place. No pain. Just procedure. Left hand gripped the padded recliner. Magical mechanical machine lowered tight on my hand like an intimate crane from construction crew captain Claudia. Excused for forty-five seconds. Out of the room.

Just the two of us: me and the humming machine. Less-sinister HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cold comfort. Scanning the wall through blurred vision. Amanda’s family photos. Notes and files on her desk. Radiation warning sign. Authorized personnel only.

Away-less-than-a-minute Claudia. Three sessions in our week-long radiotherapy affair over. Goggles and gear gone. Blue windbreaker and bifocals with me where they belong.

Back in my Sonata. Two degrees warmer than twenty minutes before. Ten new minutes in the car. East on Indian School Road. South on North 68th Street. Home in time to help Tom fold the laundry on January’s first Thursday.

I’ll do it all over again Monday. Next time, Amanda will greet me. Saguaro scars and all.

 

My Everlasting Christmas Wish

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In the darkest days of the final year of the aughts, Helen diminished like the decade’s December light. But from her cozy corner apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois, she and her prized African violets persevered. Collectively, they captured remaining rays through two windows. One faced west. The other north.

It was independent living of sorts for those like my mother, who had fallen physically or slipped mentally. Helen had done both. Her descent prompted my sister Diane and me to move Mom and her favorite belongings from her two-bedroom condo into smaller and safer quarters ten months before.

As Christmas 2009 drew near, I was befuddled. What could I give my nature-and-poetry-loving mother that she didn’t already have? My inner monologue told me to write something for her. To bridge the gap from my mid-sixties matinee memory of Mom, Diane and me seated side-by-side in a St. Louis theater. Hypnotized by Doctor Zhivago and scenes of Yuri at a desk penning poetry in the icy rural castle of Varykino.

Perhaps with a little inspiration from Boris Pasternak, I knew what to do. Far from the snow-covered majesty and drama of Russian landscapes and revolutions, I composed and framed a poem for Helen from the relative flatness of my Illinois home.

On Christmas Eve, Tom and I carried it with us to our family holiday. On December 24, it was our tradition to gather at my sister’s home, where she, brother-in-law Steve, Mom, Tom and I would savor thin-crust pizza and thick eggnog, devour delectable desserts, and listen to our favorite Christmas music.

As the evening progressed, we retired to the living room for the main event: our annual, round-robin gift exchange. As the unopened presents dwindled, I leaned down, plucked my gift from the pile, and handed it to Mom on the other side of the circle.

Seated in her wing-back chair, she paused and looked up at me before unwinding red tissue paper. Slowly Mom revealed the contents and examined the rectangular-shaped object. She mustered five words of amazement as she pulled the gift closer within the limitations of her macular degeneration:

“You wrote me a poem.”

During the last three years of her life, Helen propped the poem on a table near the door of her apartment. Across the room from the chair where she read, watched TV and eventually received breathing treatments to ease her congestive heart failure in her last days. I saw it there each time I left. I think it gave both of us comfort in her final days.

After she died on January 26, 2013, Diane and I divided her remaining possessions and re-potted cuttings of her African violets to place on the window sills of our respective homes. Naturally, I kept the poem. When I finalized From Fertile Ground (the story of my journey after Helen’s demise) in 2015, I found the right place to insert it in the book.

In 2017, the poem came with Tom and me as we made our way in our indigo Sonata on our westward odyssey. Today, it resides on top of a wooden file cabinet in our sun room near the back door of our Scottsdale home. It’s a place Helen never visited, but one she would have loved.

***

You Everlasting

You are the comfort of nature.

Eternally pressed.

The first magnolia petal of spring.

The last gingko leaf of autumn.

The determined orchid that flourishes.

The lingering annual that endures.

Perennial.

 

You are high and low tide.

Remarkably present.

The hidden, tranquil meadow.

The crackle and thump of fresh melon.

The dancing firefly,

In a warm Carolina sky.

The soulful howl of a January hound,

Waiting by the gate.

Undeniable.

 

You are the simplest wisdom.

Gracefully proud.

The tender touch of summer days,

That melt but never fade.

The breaking dawn of blues and greens,

Forever in my memories.

The resilient path,

Carved and captured in my heart.

The polished gem of hopeful dreams.

Everlasting.

***

Ten years have passed since that tender Christmas Eve moment at my sister’s home. Mom will be gone seven years in January. The pain of her loss has softened considerably, though now it returns like an old familiar friend on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries to remind me how much I loved her.

Remarkably, a cutting of one of my mother’s African violets, which she nurtured during the last ten or more years of her life, continues to thrive with Tom and me near our southern-facing windows. Yesterday on winter solstice, it absorbed the heat of the Scottsdale sun. Its purple blooms on the shortest day of the year are evidence that sometimes … against all odds … life and love go on.

As Christmas 2019 approaches, perhaps you’re like me. Thankful for life today. Thankful for family and friends who bring joy. Thankful for the memories of those who’ve gone and the reminders they’ve left behind.

Perhaps this story of everlasting gratitude will give you comfort and strength as you prepare to celebrate with family and friends … as you remember those absent from your circle.

This is my everlasting Christmas wish.

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Recasting Life’s Resume

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I’m boarding my dusty desert time machine again. Back a mere six years to the end of another odd-numbered year. 2013 was the last full year of my gainfully employed life. When I still claimed consulting colleagues and commuted to a confining cube in Chicago’s Loop.

Though I now earn a pittance stringing words together, I don’t miss the corporate skin I shed. In my sixties, storytelling from the desk of my cozy Scottsdale condo or a nearby coffee shop is a better fit. It quenches my quest for creativity. It placates my sense of purpose. It validates my voice. Plus doing it on my terms means I don’t have to kowtow to a boss and a set of corporate standards.

That got me thinking about how we Americans define ourselves on resumes. Often, the words we use describe things we’ve accomplished or labels we’ve become accustomed to. Certainly not who we are. Not what makes us tick. Not what we dream of or what nightmares we’ve endured.

Let’s face it. Most of us have survived significant traumas. Maybe we’d be better off if we touted our tenacity. If we recounted our rebounds from setbacks. If we honored our innate interests and abilities.

The biggest events on my trauma resume read something like this: divorced in 1992; fatherless in 1993; motherless in 2013; survived a mild heart attack in 2017. Of course, those seismic events don’t account for the day-in-day-out stress of single parenthood and a thirty-four-year corporate career juggling assignments and clients.

The good news is I’ve cleared all of those hurdles and discovered a fair amount of positive energy to counterbalance the traumas: finding and nurturing a committed twenty-three-year relationship with my husband; parenting two boys into their thirty-something adulthood; singing on stage with other gay men from 2010 to 2019; realizing a second career as an author beginning in 2015; writing and publishing three books since; and continuing to tell my stories from the wide-and-warm space of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

All of this is a giant preamble to tell you that I ran across my circa-2013 resume this week from my days as a consultant. I found it on one of my many flash drives. Near the top, under the “Career Overview” heading, it reads:

Results-oriented, strategic consultant with deep expertise in organizational change, employment branding, talent and rewards communication, diversity and philanthropy.

This is how I described myself on paper as an associate partner with Aon Hewitt six years ago. There’s nothing technically wrong with the words here. They accurately described my work experience and knowledge as a consultant who ran between meetings, collaborated on countless conference calls, and massaged executive egos.

It’s just that the statement is gobbledygook. It didn’t describe the man I was then. Certainly not the man I’ve become. So, even though I’m not in the market for a new job in 2020, I decided to take a crack at recasting my resume. How would I describe myself today in real-life terms in the same number of words? Maybe it would read something like this:

Sixtyish survivor, storyteller and truth-seeking author, who writes about the magnificent, mundane, messy and meaningful moments of life.

Ah. That’s much better.

December, Dermo and Dormancy

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You might think that excellent reports on a Monday from my cardiologist (“your blood pressure is good; your heart is strong; come back to see me in eight or nine months”) and gastroenterologist (“the polyps we removed during your colonoscopy were benign”) would be cause for celebration. You would be wrong.

At the end of the first Monday in December, I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I found myself in a funk. That’s because my dermatologist called on the same 3D-December Monday (cardio, gastro and dermo, oh my!) to confirm “the biopsy showed that you have  a patch of invasive squamous cell carcinoma on your left hand.”

Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

After I got off the phone with a skin cancer specialist, who explained the treatment options and assured me that my condition isn’t life threatening, Tom held my hand. He told me more of what I needed to hear. That everything will be okay. That we will get through this latest blip together. That it’s nothing compared with what happened in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. All for the chance to start a new life in a warmer home. To explore our sixties in the wide-open west of possibilities.

After all of this Monday mayhem, I needed to salvage some semblance of normalcy to the day. I needed to feel the fresh, creosote-laced air racing through my lungs. So I took a long walk alone. Along the cross-cut canal. Past the Papago buttes. Five thousand steps on a sunny-but-gauzy day restored my hope. It gave me comfort to see that none of the elements (not sun, not wind or rain) had affected these giant boulders. They were here long before me. Skin cancer or not, they will stand long after I’m gone.

In a separate attempt to rescue my day, I returned home to move our desert roses (aka adeniums). It was time to bring them inside to prepare for dormancy. I do this every December. I suppose, unlike the buttes, all of us living creatures need a little protection from the elements on certain days. Time to retreat. No water. No sun. Time to rest. Time to heal and rejuvenate.

Now it’s Tuesday. December continues in the Sonoran Desert. The sun is casting long shadows at sharp December angles. The adeniums are beginning their winter slumber in our sun room. Their leaves will fall soon and their branches will be bare. But new leaves will reappear in the spring after I carry my favorite desert flowers back outside to feel the warmth of the sun. To grow and bloom again.

Next Monday I will begin my own version of winter dormancy. It will be flecked with cancer treatments and holiday gatherings. Rather than surgery, I’ve opted for twenty pain-free sessions of superficial radiotherapy over the next several weeks. The procedure has a ninety-five-plus percent cure rate.

This course of action will allow me to continue my normal day-to-day activities … writing and exercising … and sing in two holiday concerts with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus on December 14 and 15. Being on stage and performing alongside my gay friends will bring me joy. Tom will be in the audience. My son Nick will be too, along with his girlfriend Aida, her two children and about a dozen other friends I didn’t know in 2017.

Late in January 2020, I expect to receive good news from my dermatologist. Something positive and life affirming. Something like what the cardio and gastro folks have already told me. Perhaps that the Superficial Radiotherapy Treatments (SRT) have fully eradicated the skin cancer cells on my left hand.

Whatever transpires, I am a fortunate guy. Tom and I will begin a new decade in our Arizona home. Faithfully smearing on sunscreen and wearing broad-brimmed hats. Continuing to follow all of our doctors’ orders. Writing, healing and growing together. Watching our desert roses bloom and fade in our less-than-certain sixties.

What more could I ask for?