Tag: Creative Writing

Ghost Town

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Most of America is shuttered on April 13. Like a scene from The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanavich’s dusty black-and-white film classic, an abandoned movie marquee and cinematic tumbleweed rolling down Main Street are the only props missing from this windswept western ghost town … a normally thriving Old Town Scottsdale retail district.

Maybe it’s sadistic, but I want to remember Scottsdale, Arizona, this way for a day. Minus the turquoise jewelry shoppers and bachelorette revelers. Absent the beer-bellied Cactus League fans peddling by on segways and scooters. Economic casualties, who left blue-sky baseball begrudgingly for at-home quarantines and early-spring Midwestern snowstorms.

There is comfort in this cataclysmic quiet. Imagining how it might feel to be the last man on earth in a 2020 episode of The Twilight Zone. Strolling down the center of the street past empty restaurants and boutiques. Modeling a mask on an otherwise stunning seventy-six-degree April afternoon. Wondering where it all went wrong.

I Was a Child of the Global Pandemic

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In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession and the subprime mortgage crisis, I found myself reading the handwriting on the wall. My sister Diane and I were seated beside our mother. She had begun to slip mentally.

A physician at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago began to examine Mom to determine the severity of her cognitive impairment. As he proceeded to ask questions, I felt a sense of sadness and impending doom wash over me. I knew we were about to cross the threshold into a personal crisis for our family.

The doctor began. “Helen, tell me about yourself.”

She responded. “I was a child of the Great Depression.”

Those were my eighty-five-year-old mother’s first eight wise-and-weary words. I wasn’t surprised by her commencement. As her mental acuity waned and her short-term memory deteriorated, Helen always described herself as she existed near the beginning of her story.

She was proud to share her hard-working narrative. To explain how her father and mother–people of simple means and honest ambitions– somehow always found ways to put food on the table in the 1930s after the stock market crashed and some folks, overcome by their losses, jumped out of high-rise windows.

But Helen and her family survived the depths of the Great Depression in rural North Carolina. The experience forever shaped the woman she would become. She wore it as a badge of honor. Saving for a rainy day. Taking the surest path. Honing her skills. Consolidating the contents of half-empty ketchup bottles. Pulling the little red wagon up and down the hill to get groceries when the car went kaput and Dad’s heart weakened.

Building a career in Human Resources that often included working on Saturdays. Helping find government jobs for those who were disabled. Chatting about her love of gardening over the fence with neighbors. Trusting in time and patience. Squirreling away money. Parlaying it into smart investments. Turning a little into something that might someday become a lot.

***

Helen wasn’t alone. Her feelings and experiences represented those of an entire generation of Americans. Decades before she and other hearty souls like her–men and women who would also suffer one day from macular degeneration, heart disease, dementia, and more maladies–fought World War II, bought war bonds, rationed meals, moved to the suburbs to live in brick starter homes, lived the American dream, and produced a generation of Baby Boomers.

Helen passed away in 2013. There have been moments over the past few weeks when I’ve been grateful that she’s gone … not wanting her to experience the pain of this global pandemic that is consuming us, swirling over and through us, occupying every waking and nightmare-inducing moment of our lives. In other words, I’ve been thinking about  Helen’s plight from nearly a century ago and that of the young children of today.

How will the fear and anxiety spawned by this pandemic shape their lives? How will it inform their values? How will it determine the choices they make? How will it influence their destinies? How will they describe themselves and define their lives when it becomes their turn to tell their stories to doctors in the year 2100?

Perhaps they will tell these kinds of stories.

***

My name is Anna. I was born on March 22, 2013. I was a child of the Global Pandemic. Before 2020, my mother and father owned and operated a popular restaurant in the Phoenix area. Customers raved about the great food and the lively atmosphere. But after the coronarivus entered our world, my parents were forced to abandon their business.

To survive, Mom ended up starting a business to deliver food to those who were house bound. Dad was handy. A few of the local condo communities hired him to handle day-to-day mechanical problems that came up. My parents didn’t earn much, but it was enough to sustain us in the short term.

I remember the tears and the anguish in our home. Everyone was afraid of contracting the virus. The news reports and the loss of life were devastating … especially to a few of my parents’ friends and restaurant acquaintances in major cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

But Mom and Dad tried to remain strong. If anything, I loved them more during those years of hardship. For my seventh birthday, they insisted we would celebrate, though it felt as if all of us were living under a dark cloud … even here in the Valley of the Sun.

Mom and Dad always referred to me as their little princess … Princess Anna. So, Mom bought a banner with silver curls that seemed to float down from the sky. It was emblazoned with the word “princess” on it … and the three of us sat under a green metal canopy in a park in Scottsdale. They sang Happy Birthday to me and we enjoyed cake and ice cream outside. It felt like the safest place we could be at that time.

That’s a moment in my life I’ll never forget, because it happened at the beginning of all this uncertainty in the world … schools and businesses closing, the stock market bobbing and weaving, an over-worked and broken health care system fully taxed, our political system in disarray, our infrastructure crumbling. It was frightening for everyone, but most of us survived and became stronger.

The next few years were lean ones. But, with time, the economy grew strong again. People put their lives back together. Many years later, I ended up pursuing a career in health care, because I could see how desperate the world was for qualified doctors.

I never imagined I would become an epidemiologist. But it happened. Who knows what my life might have become if the health challenges of our world hadn’t become so apparent to me in 2020?

After all, I was a child of the Global Pandemic.

 

FREE to Read as You Shelter in Place

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Perhaps you’re feeling isolated and afraid. Like me, you’re worried about the implications of this global pandemic. In need of a creative escape from the closing walls. Concerned for loved ones and friends, who live in places that are feeling the brunt of this crisis.

You’re tired and queasy from the daily Tilt-A-Whirl of news bulletins. Searching for truth. Dealing with loss. Texting with daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers to see how they’re coping. Craving a retreat into the comfort of family connections and the healing properties of nature.

I’m here to help relieve the pain with this reading stimulus offer. From Saturday, March 21, through Wednesday, March 25, Kindle copies of all three of my books are FREE on Amazon.

From Fertile Ground

Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator

An Unobstructed View

All you need to do is click on the links, go to Amazon, download the books and curl up in a cozy corner of your home.

Once you finish each book, please take a few minutes to post your reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads … especially if you feel my stories have helped to rejuvenate your spirit or soothe your soul.

One more thing. I’m thinking of you. Stay well and happy reading!

 

 

No Drone Zone

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I never want to be that guy. The bore who tells the same stories at a party. The one you can’t escape in the corner of the room when all you want to do is wipe that silly-and-smug smile off his face. More specifically, the writer who drones on about subjects that don’t matter to anyone but himself.

I certainly wonder from time to time if the things I have to say are truly meaningful to others. If my synchronistic, slice-of-life stories and observations about universal subjects like family, fatherhood, friendship and flowers–not to mention love, loss, and late-in-life dreams and adventures–are fresh enough for followers or those who happen to read one of my books or stumble upon this page.

I’m not sure this classifies as a fear. But at the very least I have my creative doubts and vulnerabilities. I imagine it’s a condition other writers experience. Particularly when they’ve been diligently honing their craft for a while (i.e., written and published three books and nearly two years of bi-weekly blog posts) and strive to remain relevant in a culture that too often tweets and discards people, their ideas and historical perspectives more quickly than a wrapper around a fast-food sandwich.

Who knew this entire thread of creative questioning would be stimulated by a hike this morning in Papago Park? Where Tom and I amassed ten-thousand steps by eleven o’clock and a “No Drone Zone” sign caught my eye before today’s round of alliteration and wordplay could begin to take flight.

It was all the confirmation I needed. That remote-controlled, pilot-less aircraft or missiles are prohibited in this quiet corner of Phoenix (home to the nearby Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Zoo), where rugged buttes are patrolled by bighorn sheep.

That every book or post that bears my name is prepared with love, authenticity and good intentions.

That I’m doing my best to honor the meaningful and meaningless moments here in the “No Drone Zone” of my post-Midwestern life.

 

 

Field of Possibilities

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We live a block from this blaze of yellow and orange. It’s really not a field. It’s a swatch of a neighbor’s front yard filled with wildflowers that thrive on February opportunities, which the Valley of the Sun affords.

One of the things I’ve learned since leaving corporate life six years ago is that capturing images of nature lights my creative fire. Doing so, reminds me of the field of possibilities that await in life. Even for a guy who’s sixty-two.

Perhaps especially for a guy who’s sixty-two, because I still have a lot of observations to share. Things I need to say about my world, my nation, my state, my community, my family, my marriage, my individuality. Ideas I need to extract and plant out of my brain, water and nurture … just so I can give them light and see them appear and bloom on a page.

The fascinating part of the creative process is that when I sat down in front of my laptop this morning I had no clue what I would write about. But then I saw this photo on my phone and it spoke to me. In some way, the larger message I heard was “Keep writing, Mark. Write about what you know. What you observe. What you feel. What you dream of and worry about.”

So that’s what I do. A little every day. Sometimes I share it here. Other times I put it in a file with notes of other raw or unrefined observations that quickly blossom and fade in the desert sun.

But it’s the field of possibilities that continue to be my source of motivation. That prompt me to push ahead with my collection of true Arizona stories and desert fantasies, which I hope to publish in the next year. That connect me to a few fabulous followers who come here to read what I have to say.

I’ll keep doing it as long as I feel that impulse.

 

 

What Shall Be

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It doesn’t matter if shadows stretch or fears fly,

If breezes blow or mountains move,

If blossoms bloom or battles blaze,

If dreams delight or courts connive.

In January, July or November,

Or somewhere in between,

You will remind me what was,

What is and what shall be.

 

Written by Mark Johnson

January 26, 2020

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.