Tag: Creativity

The Spirit of St. Louis

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If you follow my blog or have read any of my books, you know I write frequently about the importance of family and home. Thematically, I’m a big believer that they shape and influence the trajectory of our lives.

Though I left St. Louis (my original hometown) nearly forty years ago, my Missouri memories have proven to be a source of creative inspiration, pride, joy and considerable heartache. In fact, I’m certain the Gateway to the West occupies a permanent strand in my DNA.

No one personifies the spirit of St. Louis in my memories more than Thelma DeLuca. She was my aunt. I’ve been thinking of Thelma a lot lately. Mostly because the twentieth anniversary of her passing is coming later this month. But also because Dad and she were lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fans.

Tonight their favorite team (and mine too) will host the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. I’ll be watching the game on TV. If Thelma were living, she’d be doing the same. Cheering for her Redbirds. Wearing something red.

As a tribute to my aunt (shown here in a 1952 photo with “Bluebird”, her beloved blue Plymouth), I hope you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy this excerpt from Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of up-and-down stories about my Missouri youth.

* * *

Thelma’s middle name was Ruth, but it should have been Truth. She was Dad’s older sister, the life of the party, the leader of the band, a true original. There was no denying Thelma. She was the boldest, biggest-hearted member of the Johnson family. You always knew where she stood, because she would tell you with gusto. Like an Olympic gymnast on a quest for gold, she nailed the dismount, stuck the landing, and finished her routine planted firmly on the ground on the right side of an issue.

Thelma sheltered a collection of canines over the years. In the 1950s, when Lassie was king, she devoted her free time to Laddie, her prized collie. The dog won several blue ribbons with Thelma at his side. In the years that followed, she welcomed: Tina, the runt in a mixed-breed litter; Tor, a powerful but gentle Norwegian elkhound; and Heath Bar and Gizmo–Yorkshire Terriers–into her home. There’s no question she revered all of her pooches. I remember when I was a teenager as she moved in close to remind me with all the sincerity she could muster. “You know, dog is God spelled backwards,” she proclaimed …

In one breath Thelma, a lifelong Democrat, praised Harry Truman’s the-buck-stops-here forthrightness. In the next, she launched into a smooth glide down the hall on high heels with Uncle Ralph as Dean Martin sang Come Back to Sorrento or Vikki Carr belted out It Must Be Him on the hi-fi. All the while, Ralph’s prized braciole was baking in the oven.

Thelma craved the richness of relationships and the cumulative effect of what we learn from each other throughout a lifetime. Sitting at her kitchen table in the 1970s with a far-off look in her eyes, she leaned in with her wig slightly askew and told me, “Mark, we’re all like ships passing in the night.”

In her wake, Thelma certainly left her mark on me. Whenever she sent me a letter, she sealed it with a kiss–along with the letters SWAK written underneath in case her love was ever in question–leaving behind remnants of her red lipstick on the back of the envelope or at the bottom of her letter next to her signature. 

In 1976, Thelma gave me a small envelope filled with bicentennial coins: medallions, dollars, half dollars, and drummer boy quarters. She encouraged me to start a century box with these so that all of my “heirs will sit in awe and wonder about the old days back in 1976.” I still have the coins. It was a magnanimous gesture. I loved her for it and all of her convictions.

Like my dad, Thelma loved her St. Louis Cardinals. She was sixteen in 1926 when the National League Champion Cards played in their first World Series against the American League Champion New York Yankees, led by legendary slugger Babe Ruth.

The Cardinals won the series four games to three and were crowned World Series Champions for the first time. Rogers Hornsby was the Cardinals player-manager. Grover Cleveland Alexander was the winning pitcher in two of the Cardinals’ victories. Though Ruth clubbed three home runs in Game 4 and another in Game 7, the “Bambino” recorded the final out in Game 7 when the Cardinals caught him attempting to steal second base.

With a chuckle and a raspy voice, Thelma recounted that when the 1926 series was over, “I walked down the street chanting ‘Hornsby for President, Alexander for Mayor, Babe Ruth for dogcatcher, isn’t that fair?”

In April of 1979, during my senior year of college at Mizzou, I interviewed my aunt for a family folklore assignment. I was riveted as Thelma described the destruction from the September 29, 1927 tornado, which tore through St. Louis and killed seventy-eight people. She and my grandmother Louise Johnson huddled inside their home that day and rode out the storm safely.

At one point, they leaned against the front door with all their might to keep it from blowing off the hinges. When the violent storm was over, they ventured outside to discover houses on both sides of them had been lifted off their foundations. 

Thanks to Thelma and her recollections, the link to my Johnson family heritage and St. Louis history is alive and well. That was Thelma.

I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree

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Ordinarily, pruning branches in our condo complex is something our landscape crew attends to. But they haven’t appeared lately. So, last week Tom and I dusted off our hedge trimmers. We gave haircuts to the fig and orange trees in our row. We didn’t mind. We had the time, energy and motivation.

Today, I stood in front of our mid-century condo. Gazing east as the morning light forced me to shield my eyes. Surveying the overgrown boughs of a luscious lemon tree that shrouded the sidewalk to our parking lot. Hands on hips, I uttered these seven words:

I think I’ll prune the lemon tree.

Yes, a guy born and raised in the Midwest, near towering oaks and majestic maples that abandon their leaves every October, now trims fragrant citrus fruits in autumn and says these peculiar things. Who is this crazy person? Where did this new language come from?

Let me be clear. This wasn’t the first time I was privy to this sort of newfangled, desert phraseology.  In the fall of 2017, just a few months after my husband and I left Illinois and moved into our Arizona condo, he shouted the following previously undocumented sentence as I wrote at my desk:

There’s a lizard in the sink.

As calmly as possible, I pressed “save” on whatever I was writing and scampered into the kitchen to see what Tom had discovered. Indeed, there was a lizard in the trap of the sink. He was no more than two inches long and frozen like a tiny statue exhumed from an archaeological dig. I’m sure he was frightened by the two giant heads peering down at him.

If you’re an animal lover like we are, you’ll be delighted to learn that we didn’t freak out and smash him in the sink. Instead, we kept our wits. We scooped him onto a piece of paper and carried him outside to safety.

Slowly, he slithered off into the desert landscape to resume his natural existence. Just a few yards away from where the freshly shorn fig, orange and lemon trees live in this sun-drenched land of sand and saguaros.

I never thought I’d live here. Oh, lemon trees and lizards, I never thought I’d say and hear such things.

 

 

 

 

When in Wien

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You are a ring of lush palaces, pastries, parables and past civilizations.

Of cavernous courtyards, cascading cathedrals and crusty cafe croissants.

Of stained statues on strassers, strolling strangers and circling streetcars.

Of hidden September stables where loyal Lipizzaner stallions saunter.

Of magnificent museums, Mozart, mythology and melange metaphors.

Of baroque avenues, ornate artifacts, elegant archways and acute angles.

Of afternoon tea, while gazing at you through sunlit storefront windows.

 

When in Vienna … when in Wien.

 

Written by Mark Johnson, October 2, 2019

 

 

 

A Drink with Jam and Bread

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Some memories are like rare monarch butterflies.  They land before you in a brilliant twist of fate. They perch on a sunflower petal for a moment, as one did yesterday on a path at the Desert Botanical Garden here in Phoenix. But before you know it, the moment has passed. The breathtaking beauty has flown away.

That’s how I felt about my visit to Salzburg, Austria, earlier this month. So, on the last day of September, before my fleeting recollections of fabled Austria fade and vanish into the sky, I’m going to turn back the clock almost two weeks to a few sensory-filled moments in this captivating and historic city.

***

It was the afternoon of September 17. A Tuesday, to be precise. Tom and I had just completed a walking tour of the city with forty others. Harold, our friendly and knowledgeable guide, led the way.

After the group disbanded for the day, my husband and I were craving some down time. That’s when we found the quiet comfort of Cafe Bazar, an historic haunt along the banks of the Salzach River. Given my literary endeavors, a friend had told us to go there. Since its birth in 1909, legends such as Marlene Dietrich, Thomas Mann, Arthur Miller, Klaus Maria Brandauer and many other artists have been Cafe Bazar guests. One can only imagine the magnitude of their stirring conversations.

At any rate, Tom and I sat in the same room where they had … soaking up the Salzburg scenery at a table for two on a Tuesday. To be clear, we didn’t sip tea while we ate our jam and bread. We each ordered a cup of Wiener melange (German for “Viennese blend”). One shot of espresso topped with a dollop of steamed milk and foam. Let’s just say it was the perfect complement to a freshly baked croissant and apricot jam in spectacular Salzburg.

If you’re a lover of The Sound of Music like me, you’ve already caught my creative drift. For an American baby boomer, it’s impossible to visit Salzburg and the surrounding area without recalling moments from the iconic 1965 movie musical.

You know, singing “Do-Re-Mi” like the Von Trapp kids did. Bobbing up and down on the steps in Mirabell Gardens. Pretending to dash around a bubbling fountain in formation in one of the freshly made outfits Maria made from old curtains. Channeling Julie Andrews as she twirls with her bag, struts under a canopy of trees, and sings “I Have Confidence.” Even consuming a drink with jam and bread at Cafe Bazar.

But, as charming and memorable as those Hollywood images are, they aren’t the real Salzburg. No other city can boast that it’s the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Salzburg also has the distinction of appearing on the UNESCO World Heritage List. That designation came in 1996.

Twenty-three years later, in September 2019, two guys from Scottsdale, Arizona, passed through town. They sipped on a cup of Wiener melange with jam and bread, watched the world go by, and cherished the gift of Salzburg … a forever-artistic city.

 

 

A Path I Might Have Missed

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There you stood, rare and bright. Defying the odds. Shining in a field far away. Flourishing in a wide open world. Sparkling in the foreground of my dreams.

I still see you, sunny and true. Unfolding under the sky. Craning for a mountain view. Growing taller everyday. Promising petals on a path I might have missed.

Written by Mark Johnson, September 6, 2019

Still Counting in September

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“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined — to strengthen each other — to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

George Eliot — English novelist, poet, journalist and translator

***

George Eliot had it right. Memories are a powerful human connection. Without a moment’s notice, we can be transported back to a person, time, and place. Often, this happens as we complete our simplest daily activities at home in the kitchen. Pouring a cup of coffee. Biting into a crunchy apple. Stirring a pot on the stove. Or, in my case, counting and depositing pills into a tray.

On the surface, this may seem like a purely clinical exercise. But it was something significant I did for my mother during the last several years of her life as her macular degeneration worsened. As her dementia deepened. Every other Saturday morning, I drove twenty miles from my home in one Chicago suburb to hers in another. Each time I counted out two weeks worth of medications for her.

Of course, our visits consisted of more than medication administration. We shared late breakfasts, early lunches, short walks and longer stories about our lives and love of family and nature whenever her health and the weather permitted. Neither of us ever imagined I’d  write about our journey years later in what became From Fertile Ground.

Yesterday in Arizona, as I was filling my own tray of medications for the coming week, I was reminded of those intimate Saturday mornings with my mother. Sorting her pills in past Septembers. Doing what I could to help sustain her life for another two weeks as the late summer light in northern Illinois produced elongated shadows.

Of course, it was all worth it. I would do it all over again. But at least now I have the memories to savor. At least I’m still counting in September.

 

This Bowl of Life

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Over the past four months, I’ve shared stories about life at a community gym in Scottsdale, known as Club SAR. My husband and I work out there frequently.

In May, I wrote about my altercation with a bully there. It shook me to the core, but I resolved To Stand Tall. I haven’t encountered any problems since.

In June, The Gym Reaper appeared and prompted me to write about her. Fortunately, she left without me or any other victims (that I know of).

In July, I observed tenderness and tenacity outside the boxing ring. Two men inspired me to write The Boxer and the Theatre of the Mind.

Now, in August, I have more to say. I have a deeper understanding of what this place represents for many of us who exercise there. Boxers in the ring. Rows of joggers on the treadmills. A steady stream of bodies lifting weights on a Saturday morning. A friendly and dedicated staff that greets us every day.

Clearly, it’s much more than the burning of calories that keeps all of us coming back. It’s the sense of community we feel … even love, perhaps … that gives us the hope we need to keep going. To keep fighting. To live another day.

This realization hit me as a friend left the ring and approached me. He smiled when he told me he’d found a new and better-paying job. That he was a recovering methadone addict. That he had once been homeless. That somehow he had climbed his way back. That the structure of boxing at Club SAR is an important part of his recovery. We hugged and I encouraged him to keep going. To keep telling his powerful story. Certainly, this is a community he desperately needs.

And he’s not alone. Another friend finished her circuit of weights and told me that her father’s health was failing. His long battle with multiple sclerosis had worn him down. She’s planning to fly across the country to visit him this coming week. This may be the last time she’ll see him. We traded contact information. Tom and I told her she should feel free to reach out to us at any time.

A third friend at Club SAR is working to rebuild his life after the devastation of an opioid addiction. His path to recovery has been long and arduous. But he’s making significant progress. He’s back at work now. He keeps fighting. Tom and I see him playing basketball and lifting weights on occasion. He’s joined us at our home a few times for dinner. We’re trying to make a positive difference in his life.

And then, of course, there’s me … a recovering heart trauma patient. I complete my cardio workout several times a week. Thankfully, the experience of my mild heart attack two-plus years ago has faded to a large degree. Life feels more normal now than it has for a long time. I think I’ve needed this community … this extended family … as much as the rest of the folks I’ve described above.

Sure, it’s up to each of us individually to overcome our own spiky problems. But we’re better off together. Taking care of our bodies. Our minds. Our spirits. Sharing our stories in this bowl of life.