Possibilities pose on the shelf of creativity. In the sculpting hands and firing synapses of the committed artist, a wedge of alabaster, foreboding canvas, or blank page evolves into something profound and present, provoking the imagination of those who linger and remember.
As we travel highways and backroads, we gather and stack our stones. We accumulate memories of lovers and friends, tranquility and turmoil, balance and incongruity, strength and vulnerability.
Our teetering stones represent the yin and yang of our natural existence. Without them, we would have nothing to account for our discoveries, our disappointments, our victories, our losses, our presence.
Gaze beyond the earth to the cerulean sky. It lightens our load. The blueness invites us to forget the gravity of our stones, to aspire to possibilities loftier, to imagine peace over the weight of our past.
I’ve been feeling murky lately–grumpy too. It’s been one of those uncertain periods in life. We all have them.
Two weeks ago, the engine in our nine-year-old Sonata seized. It went kaput as Tom was returning from the gym, initiating a domino effect of frustrating phone calls and texts, AAA tows, car rentals, dealer discussions, loaner agreements, missed connections, and moving deadlines.
Fortunately, Tom is okay and our car is still under warranty … barely. (Ten years or 100,000 miles.) Our odometer read 98,500 when everything shut down. The engine was replaced and paid for by Hyundai. We picked up our rejuvenated car yesterday. It’s now running smoothly.
Despite the relatively fortunate personal and financial outcome, my patience has worn thin. My creativity is scattered. It’s as if a Sonoran wind blew in, swept my disparate ideas (literal and figurative scraps of paper on my desk) into the sky, and scorched them into a cloud of embers, precipitated by a drought-induced Arizona fire. (Yes, it’s fire season here again.)
As a result, my writing schedule is off. My temper is short. The temperature outside is rising fast in the Phoenix area (110 degrees here we come).
Oh, book sales have fallen off the map. Do people read anymore? This is one of those moments when I need to remind myself of the joy I felt in March when I was basking in the publishing afterglow (not the flames of a hillside fire) of reading passages from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree before a group of thirty-five friends and neighbors.
Through it all, I’m aware I am living in the undefined space between writing projects. If you are also a writer, you know what that feels like. It feels like crap. Why? Because writing (for us, at least) serves as a personal compass, a guiding light, an organizing principle that keeps us feeling passionate, centered, connected, relevant, and whole.
Now that I’ve had a chance to whine a little, I should also tell you that a new possible creative project has begun to surface. It may materialize this fall. At this point, I don’t want to jinx it by describing it any further.
Instead, I’m better served by resting my brain a little, praying for monsoon rains in Arizona, and focusing on a much-needed, ten-day vacation/road trip to and from Montana, which Tom and I will embark on in a few weeks.
Of course, we couldn’t go anywhere a year ago. But, because we are fully vaccinated, we’ll be able to explore and absorb the majestic scenery of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho with a clear conscience and visit friends in Bozeman, Montana.
What more could I ask for to retool my engine?
I used to think I was purely a coffee guy. That a cup of tea wasn’t my cup of tea. But I’ve changed. Now I enjoy a cup or two of hot coffee and a cup or two of hot tea every day. Not simultaneously, of course.
Coffee (with non-dairy creamer) is my early morning drink. What Tom typically and Mark less frequently brews to stir our bodies and revive our brains. Whereas tea with honey in the morning, early afternoon or in the evening–like yoga–cues my deepest thoughts, centers my soul, renews my sense of hope, and quiets my agitation.
If it’s the right kind of herbal tea, it also clears my sinuses. Tom and I discovered and bought a great allergy and sinus tea (sold by the SW Herb Shop & Gathering Place in Mesa, Arizona) several months ago while shopping the outdoor aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market.
The mild melding of ingredients includes elder, echinacea, peppermint, dandelion, goldenrod, and orange peel … stuff I usually see in a field or orchard, but now they gather and grace themselves in my tea cup.
Recently, I ran out of this special blend, but was able to order it on line. Miraculously, despite the recent United States Postal Service drama, it arrived in the mail a few days later. It’s such a relief, to have my new stash. To enjoy a few cups daily to counteract the latest flair up of allergies. Something I never experienced in the Midwest, but do in the Sonoran Desert.
I’ve decided herbal tea is a more expansive and introspective drink than coffee. While it opens my sinuses I also think it frees my mind, heart and creative sensibilities. If you’ve imagined me drinking a cup as I compose this story, you’re right. In fact, without my cup of tea today, I doubt I would have written anything at all. My focus would have stayed on my stuffy sinuses.
Between sentences and sips of tea, I’m reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This tiny-but-mighty book was a gift to Tom and me from a friend. First published in 1986, it’s one of the most accessible, descriptive and personal books I’ve read about committing to a practice of writing, overcoming doubts, and “freeing the writer within.”
It’s also filled with bits of wisdom and humanity. Guidance that I need today to cleanse myself after reading about the latest vitriolic display from the White House. (Tom and I protected our sanity and blood pressure this week by not watching any of the Republican National Convention antics live.)
In an attempt to share some of the goodness from Natalie’s book, here’s a nugget from page 97, where she talks about embracing both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of life. (For instance, drinking coffee or tea vs. living through a global pandemic.)
“We are all interwoven and create each other’s universes. When one person dies out of his time, it affects us all. We don’t live for ourselves; we are interconnected. We live for the earth, for Texas, for the chicken we ate last night that gave us its life, for our mother, for the highway and the ceiling and the trees. We have a responsibility to treat ourselves kindly; then we will treat the world in the same way.”
Given the state of our world right now, perhaps Natalie’s words will resonate with you as much as me. Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a fully-entrenched-and-sometimes-jaded one or somewhere in between, perhaps her gem of a book will inspire your best creative instincts.
Perhaps it will be your cup of tea.
The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.
I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.
Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.
Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.
His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).
When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.
Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.
Albert was a health-conscious and athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.
In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.
According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.
During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.
In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”
In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.
During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.
I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.
Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.
Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.
But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.
I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.
Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience. But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.
You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.
In popular American culture, there is boundless emphasis on achieving success, material wealth, and happiness before you turn thirty.
That’s not a recent phenomenon. Consider every car ad you’ve ever seen that plays on a loop during the holidays with a cooing couple in love and big bow tied outside on the latest red, silver or black luxury sedan or SUV.
Yet, for most people, the premise is fraudulent and anxiety producing. In reality, it takes much longer (sometimes your entire life) to find your path, push your head above water financially and (if you’re lucky) discover some level of creative contentment.
For me, the monetary success didn’t come until my forties. Creative contentment came later. In my fifties. But it didn’t appear in an office or a cubicle. With a client or a colleague.
It began to surface ten years ago today … on June 19, 2010 … at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.
That night, as we prepared for two performances of Summer Lovin’ (our Pride concert), I found myself surrounded on stage by fifty new friends (with Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria) in Chicago’s thriving gay community. Diverse and talented people I had known for a mere three months.
At that moment, I didn’t know these kind cohorts–instrumental in my personal renaissance–would carry me across the creative threshold that night and become some of my most enduring friends. But that’s what happened for this member of the Windy City Gay Chorus for the next seven years.
I was smitten and felt my spring awakening (we were still a few days short of summer) when a circle enveloped us newbies, a stirring song (Walk Hand in Hand) swirled over and around me, and a red rose landed magically in my hand minutes before our 5 p.m. performance.
Then, on cue in the first act, we performed The Song of Purple Summer (written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) from the musical Spring Awakening.
It still makes me cry. It holds me captive.
The flowers of spring
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything
The butterfly sings
And opens purple summer
With the flutter of its wings
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
The swallow brings
A song too hard to follow
That no one else can sing
The porches swing
The clouds begin to thunder
Crickets wander, murmuring
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder of purple summer
On this night ten years later … in this age of tumult and fear … I feel the sadness and longing in this song.
But there is also comfort in this memory and the soaring voices of my Windy City friends.
In the spring of 2010, they ushered me to the wonder of purple summer.
It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.
Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.
Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.
When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.
In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.
On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.
In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.
In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.
I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.
In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.
In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois. I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.
Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”
I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.
Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.
Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.
In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.
This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.
The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.
One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.
I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.
Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.
As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.
For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.
But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.
For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.
Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.
That’s really all I need to make a splash.
Even in this moment, you emerge undeterred,
answering absence, beckoning brilliance,
gathering gladness, harvesting happiness,
promising petals, savoring sunlight,
transforming trauma, welcoming wonder.
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.