In this season of rebirth, I am reminded of my transformative journey that began five Aprils ago.
I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey.
I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground.
Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.
By the fourth month of 2017, Tom and I had drawn up the details of our dream. We would sell our home in northern Illinois; escape the cold; move to Scottsdale, Arizona; and live in the desert permanently. We wouldn’t be denied.
It all began in April with the physical trappings of certainty. We were locked into a familiar pattern of cool and damp Lake Michigan air with only a ray or two of sun filtering through the clouds. But as we prepared to leave behind the permutations of our past, we also knew there was heavy lifting to be done.
Before we could leave the Midwest and say goodbye to our Illinois family and friends, we needed to sell our home in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.
What you just read is a portion of the prologue from An Unobstructed View. If you find yourself intrigued and pondering your own personal transformation, my third book will have special meaning for you. Download a free copy on Amazon through Monday, April 18.
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Set against the rugged Sonoran Desert landscape, it’s an anthology of whimsical and serious stories about a little bit of everything: hot rods, high points, climbing up, growing old, coming out, pruning trees, eavesdropping cacti, pool rules, sand dollars, shrinking men, tiny lizards, literary life, fanciful flights, fresh lemons, pandemic truths, desert fantasies, and much more.
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If you are a betting man or woman, fours are wild today. Four double-red desert rose buds are primed to burst on our back patio; this sixty-four-year-old writer (who has written four books) swam twenty-four laps at Chaparral Pool this morning; and July 12 is the fourth anniversary of Tom and me arriving (finally) at our Arizona home after a hospital stay in St. Louis.
Dad would have loved the synchronicity–the magical, random alignment–of these fours. He was a numerology freak. Like me, he also was a dreamer, poet, sentimentalist, Cardinal-baseball lover, and heart-attack survivor.
My father never met Tom. A week shy of his eightieth birthday, he died before my husband and I began dating nearly twenty-five years ago. I don’t think Dad would have understood our relationship, but he would have continued to love me anyway.
I also believe he would have loved Tom’s smile, enthusiasm, and youthful spirit … and marveled at my resolve to create an authentic life with a soulmate, while raising Nick and Kirk and living long enough to see my two young sons evolve into intelligent, critical-thinking, thirty-something men.
Most of all, Dad would have admired–possibly envied–the free-flowing, simple, yet meaningful life Tom and I have built in our sixties in the warmth (okay, intense heat) of the Sonoran Desert. After surviving my heart attack blip four years ago, we have our health and plenty of time to exercise, write, read, reflect, and nurture friendships.
Tom and I no longer have to worry about the demands of holding down regular/traditional jobs or living up to narrow standards prescribed by somebody else. I realize what a privilege that is, even though there was a time in my previously closeted and discriminated life when I felt I would never find a path through the labyrinth.
Yesterday, four of us gay friends who met in Arizona in 2017 and formed an impromptu book discussion group in 2018 … Brian, Mike, Tom and me (plus Andy, a longer-term friend living in Chicago who joined the conversation via Facetime) … gathered, talked and laughed in the friendly, freshly painted confines of our Scottsdale den/guest room. We were there to exchange ideas and mixed reviews of The Days of Anna Madrigal, first published by Armistead Maupin in 2014. It was our first book group discussion since sometime in 2019, months before the pandemic began to ravage the world.
As I reflect on the three hours we spent together Sunday … critiquing various aspects of Maupin’s novel that I think missed the mark, recounting our original fascination with Maupin’s Tales of the City characters on Barbary Lane and the resulting PBS phenomenon in the 1990s, catching up on our own personal lives, telling summer stories of travel, and sharing brunch after surviving the dread of 2020 … I am especially thankful for friends such as Brian and Mike, who entered our lives in Arizona. Our Grand Canyon State friends have enriched our world after the St. Louis storm.
No matter how hot it gets in the Phoenix area this summer (110, 111, 112 degrees, and so on) … or whether the monsoons finally materialize and spill promised moisture into the Valley of the Sun this week as forecasters say they will … the lead of this personal story is the beauty of our desert roses, our mutual investment with new neighbors and friends between 2017 and 2021. During that time, we have come to love a whole new batch of people (and they have loved us) in our first four years in Arizona. It is a dream come true beyond the friends and family we continue to love in Illinois and Missouri.
From various avenues–literary, yoga, choral, gymnastic, canine, and cinematic–new Arizona friends and acquaintances have helped us heal, renewed our spirits, made us laugh, and stretched our creative sensibilities to new heights. I certainly didn’t see the breadth of this late-in-life resurgence coming from my precarious station in a hospital bed in St. Louis on July 6, 2017.
Dad would have loved these literary bonus years after the rises and falls of our midwestern life … these days of desert friendships and roses for Tom and me. Like the rousing song from Bye Bye Birdie, which played on the transistor radio next to Dad’s hospital bed as he recovered from his own St. Louis heart attack in September 1962, I’ve still got A Lot of Livin’ to Do.
In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.
Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.
In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.
As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.
Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.
I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.
In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.
If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.
Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.
Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.
On Saturday, I watched Chandler let it fly. He’s a friend who’s in town participating in a Disc Golf Pro Tour event here in Arizona. Chandler is pursuing his passion. Doing everything he can to earn a living in a sport he loves. Competing in a profession in which he has quite a bit of skill.
I’ll admit it. I know little about the sport of disc golf. It appears to follow many of the rules of traditional golf. The primary difference is that you fling a round disc toward a basket, rather than drive a tiny ball with a club into a hole. The idea is to deposit the disc in the basket in as few attempts as possible.
Yesterday, on a warm and occasionally breezy Scottsdale afternoon, several of us (we dubbed ourselves Team Chandler) followed along in the gallery as the action wound its way from one end of Vista del Camino Park to another.
As with any golf competition, there were highs and lows. Birdies and bogeys. Fist bumps and sighs. But the good news is Chandler made the cut. He’s competing in the final round of the tournament today as I write this. His goal is to finish in the top ten.
No matter if he does or doesn’t, the important thing is Chandler is following his dream in the desert and pursuing his passion. Whatever the results are today, he will move on to the next stop on the tournament circuit in Texas this coming week.
After all, win or lose, life is short. It’s always better to let it fly.
I realize the title of this post sounds a little hokey and an awful lot like a lyric from a 1970s Carpenters song. (Please tell me you remember who Karen Carpenter was!) But I prefer to imagine that I, a generally healthy sixty-one-year-old male who visits his cardiologist every six months, will channel my energies into creative writing projects that will stimulate my intellect rather than stewing over my advancing age. That is beyond my control.
I adopted this philosophy five years ago this week. That’s when I walked out the door of my Aon office in Chicago and began a new chapter. As background, up until that moment I really didn’t feel I was living the artistic life I was meant to live. If anything, in late January 2014, I was numb from my mother’s death a year before and the escalating demands of navigating thirty-four years in the communication consulting, PR and advertising worlds.
After months of soul-searching and years of smart saving, I left the familiar unfulfilling days behind. I needed time to heal. I needed time to explore life on my terms. At age fifty-six, I grabbed my digital camera and began to capture images of darting dragonflies and picturesque prairie landscapes. I recorded random inspirations in my journal as I rambled along. The fog began to lift and my energy returned. Gradually, I discovered my way out in Illinois. As I wrote about the grief of losing my mother and revisiting my southern roots in From Fertile Ground, it prompted new possibilities. It promised a more poetic life.
What else have I learned in the past five years? After surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I know I am fortunate to be alive. My husband and I lead a creative, warm life. We have a quieter existence in Arizona far away from the hustle and brutal cold of Chicago’s late January days.
Even with the physical distance from my Chicago life, I’m thankful for friends there, who shared their gifts and inspired me along the way to be true to my creative self. Like my friend Dina. She and I were close colleagues at Aon. Five years ago, on my last day of corporate life, she gave me this artful-and-personal handmade gift: a mirrored collage for me to reflect on the fun-and-unforgettable aspects of my Chicago work life. I keep Dina’s gift on my desk in Arizona, because it captures where I’ve been and who I am: a big picture guy, who cares about his husband, good friends, art, music, theatre, the best books, and cuddly animals.
Yes, I lead a happier and more fulfilling life in the desert. Somehow I’ve written and published three books and survived a health scare. But it still feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities of this semi-retired, creative life.
When I look at Dina’s mirrored gift, it feels like I’ve only just begun.
My husband and I have a New Year’s Day tradition in Arizona. Every year on January 1 we hike to a nearby park to feed crusts of old year bread to new year birds. We began doing this four or five years ago when we were birds ourselves — snowbirds, that is — and found we had fallen in love with the darling ducks at a little oasis surrounded by buttes and palm trees.
Today, on a frosty Arizona morning, we renewed our ritual. We tossed tufts of multi-grain goodness into the water. The ducks dove in and paddled up to gobble up the bread. A family with two pre-teen children watched with delight from the edge of the water. Their expressions told me they were fascinated with our interaction with the ducks. I smiled and passed them two slices of bread so they could join in our moment with the ducks.
What better way to begin 2019. Reaching out to nature. Connecting with strangers. Celebrating the start of another year in a world of possibilities.
In a world that overvalues youth, immediacy and hashtags (and undervalues history, longevity and sentiment), I sometimes fear that memoirs will vanish one day soon. That no one will care about the past, what we might learn from it, and what it means to us. Still, I continue to share my stories, because I believe we grow as human beings by remembering where we came from and how these experiences inform our present lives.
Last week, I wrote about my fascination with desert rose plants and their beautiful blooms. This story goes deeper than my Arizona life. Decades deeper. Back to my childhood in St. Louis and beyond. Back to my mother and father, when they were newlyweds living in Texas in the late 1940s.
As Christmas approaches and my new desert rose plant lies dormant in my Arizona home, the time is right to share my earliest desert rose memories from the 1960s and the sense of renewal this beautiful succulent represents in my life.
With the disruptions at home, my parents had too much on their plates and seldom played host and hostess on holidays. The one exception was Christmas Day dinner. That’s when they threw caution to the wind annually; when Mom poured highballs for our hardest drinking guests; when a layer of cigarette and cigar smoke bellowed and hung across our living room; when Mom cooked roast beef, whipped potatoes and gravy, and some sort of green vegetable to present a “balanced meal;” when she reached into the kitchen cupboard for her favorite dinnerware; when–best of all–she proudly displayed the place settings of Franciscan Desert Rose she and Dad received as wedding gifts in 1948.
While Mom’s meal was in the oven, I helped her swing open the leg of our maple dining room table and insert a few leaves to accommodate our house guests: Thelma, Ralph, Harry, Violet, Phyllis, Vic, Virginia, Vickie and Lib–and a few other aging relatives and friends who had nowhere else to go. Then, between intermittent checks of her roast, she took laps around the dining room, setting each place with utensils and napkins, and adding the Desert Rose plates, cups, and saucers.
I don’t think I was a tremendous help to her as she set the table, but I remember seeing a far off glint in Mom’s eyes as she examined and caressed each plate. I know she treasured her embossed earthenware. Introduced by Gladding, McBean and Company in 1941, Franciscan Desert Rose was one of the best-selling dinnerware lines of the 1940s. Perhaps it reminded her of a simpler time … when she and Dad were newlyweds preparing to move to Texas where his dry goods sales job was taking them … when they had lighter hopes, greater dreams, more time, and a sparkling set of dinnerware to frame lovingly-prepared meals with new friends and acquaintances.
Whatever the case, the classic design of the Desert Rose–the pink rose with a yellow center and a green-leaf border–dressed up Mom’s holiday table and brought a hint of beauty into an otherwise chaotic world.
Over the decades, several plates, cups and saucers were chipped or broken. I don’t know what happened to the remaining pieces of my parents’ Desert Rose dinnerware, but my husband and I have bought a few Desert Rose plates in the past few years, whenever we discover them on a random shelf in a Midwestern antique shop. They remind me of my happiest holiday memories and that fleeting, wistful look I saw on my mother’s face each year on Christmas Day.
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Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, as 2018 winds down, I encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on your favorite childhood memories. And, most of all, I wish you peace and good health in 2019. I hope you realize your desert rose dreams and witness the power of renewal in the coming year.