Tag: Gardening

Sunday in the Garden

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I found her there. Perching precariously on the tip of a branch. Pausing between blurs. Anna’s Hummingbird in profile. Protected by the boughs. Far from lies, denials and assaults. Nature’s truth, peace, hope and gentility. Carefully preserved. Free for one more day. Safe on a Sunday in the garden.

Never Far Away

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Every morning you appear outside my window in the fever of July.

In the blooming blanket of a Barbara Karst bougainvillea.

A red reminder of ripe melons and ready resiliency.

Of sweet magnolia miles and pink petunias past.

Of green thumbs and blue birthday hydrangeas.

Every night you fade with each Sonoran sunset.

But you are never far away in the garden.

 

By Mark Johnson, July 22, 2019

 

July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

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It was about 90 degrees at 7 o’clock when I grabbed my broad-brimmed hat, a tall bottle of water, and a cool, damp towel to cover the back of my neck. My husband and I were heading to Vista del Camino Park for our early morning walk before the temperatures escalated past 100. Such is life in July in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

The elephant foot succulents on the north side of our condo don’t seem to mind. They are coping just fine. Under the eaves. Resting in the shade most of the day. We decided to move our container of gladiolas next to them. They were getting torched on the south side in the all-day sun. Maybe the American flags will help boost their spirits as Independence Day approaches.

I’ve learned to accept and adapt to July’s torrid temperatures here … since that day nearly two years ago when I survived to tell the story of An Unobstructed View. As long as you keep a ready supply of water nearby and stay indoors during the spike in the afternoon heat, it’s manageable.

This year we’ve planned a few strategic July escapes, as well.  One to the stunning red rocks of Sedona a few hours north. Another further up Interstate 17 into the fragrant, tall pines and mountains of Flagstaff, where the air is thinner and the temperatures are twenty-five degrees cooler.

Truly, life in Arizona is a story of extremes … and remarkable beauty.

 

To Stand Tall

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The world has gone mad. Last week, I felt it personally.

***

On Monday at the gym, bully #1 sprayed venomous, hateful words at me in a weight-lifting room. He claimed I had usurped his space on a bench. He was wrong. It was vacant when I stepped in briefly. At any rate, I was smart enough to walk away from someone far more muscular.

I was also scared enough to recognize old wounds from my adolescence … bullying and humiliation in middle school hallways and locker rooms by larger, straighter, nastier boys who wielded the “F” word and ruled by physical intimidation without adult supervision.

Before I left the gym, I reported the incident to an employee. A few minutes later the reality of what had happened hit me. I cried in the car with my husband Tom by my side.

***

On Saturday at the local market, Tom and I had just bought scented soaps from a vendor. She’s a friend and single mother. I hugged her, knowing her children will be leaving soon for the summer to spend time with their dad.

Before we left, I stopped at a booth to enter my friend’s name in a Mother’s Day drawing. That’s when it happened. “Are you a mother?” bully #2 asked rhetorically. She covered the entry box with both hands and shook her head.

“No, I’m not,” I replied. “But a friend is. I’d like to enter her name in the contest.”

She scolded me. “Vendors aren’t allowed to participate.”

With all the sarcasm I could muster, I glared back and thanked her for “the pleasurable experience of meeting her.” My hair was on fire. I stomped away. Tom stayed long enough to tell bully #2 and her manager how rude they were. We both wondered if they would have treated us the same if we’d been a straight couple.

***

On Sunday, Tom and I missed our mothers. They both died several years ago. Naturally, we still feel the weight of grief. We always will on Mother’s Day. To find solace, we hiked to the Desert Botanical Garden in the morning. It’s one of our favorite spots to be alone with our thoughts. To see the cacti and succulents bloom. To watch the quail and ground squirrels skitter. To escape our worries and get lost in nature.

As we walked along a path, a six-or-seven-year-old boy and his extended family approached us. “Happy Mother’s Day,” he shouted gleefully. “Thank you. Same to you,” I responded with gusto. Instantly, the child stole my heart on a garden path in the desert. At least for a few moments, he renewed my faith in humanity.

Before Tom and I left the garden, we stopped to buy a desert rose. I wanted to pay tribute to my wise, garden-loving mother by planting new life in the sun on our back patio with two similar roses. I wanted to give us hope that one day we’ll live in a world with stronger leaders, who have greater compassion and desire to help protect young children like the one who greeted us with unbridled joy. Leaders who will fight against bullying, rather than foster it.

Until then, I need this third desert rose to remind me to remain true to myself. To continue performing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus, as I did on Saturday night at a benefit for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence. To speak my mind as a concerned American, husband, father, son, neighbor, and gay man.  To stand tall in a world gone mad.

Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

Love is in the Air

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Don’t let anyone tell you the Sonoran Desert is dead in the Spring. While it’s true that there are no daffodils, tulips, peonies or crocuses to speak of or admire, the Palo Verde trees are ablaze in yellow. The bougainvillea are burgeoning. The cacti are blooming in abundance. Splashes of white, pink, purple, orange and red abound. Oh, and love is in the air. I mean that literally.

I was a snowbird visiting Arizona from Illinois five years ago, when I encountered my first two lovebirds under open skies. They were a couple of diminutive, rosy-faced parrots huddling and chirping in a palm tree high above, as my husband Tom and I played Scrabble near our condo pool. I was captivated by their vivid, multi-colored feathers and the tender way they preened each other.

Now that I’m a full-time resident of the Sonoran Desert, I’m still smitten. So much so that I felt my adrenalin surge recently as I captured this image with my telephoto lens:  another fanciful flock of lovebirds holding court high atop a palm tree in Vista del Camino Park near my home.

In the past week or so, I’ve come to realize that these gorgeous birds aren’t originally from Arizona. The lovebirds are natives of Africa. Namibia to be precise. According to several sources online, in the 1980s two colonies of them were cast aloft into Phoenix-area neighborhoods. One was the result of a monsoon storm that destroyed a local aviary. The others scattered when an owner decided he didn’t want to keep them anymore. He released them into Sonoran skies.

The good news is the lovebirds don’t pose a threat to native Arizona birds. They simply add to the color palette and have adapted to life in the Valley of the Sun over the past three decades. Apparently, the palm trees and temperatures here are similar to those in their African home. So, the lovebirds are comfortable living in the Sonoran Desert.

Coincidentally, last Saturday–with the lovebirds front and center in my psyche–I was wearing my “Love is Love” t-shirt. (Imagine the silhouettes of a herd of six rainbow-colored elephants–red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple–with their trunks happily intertwined above the three words and you’ve got the right idea.)

Anyway, Tom and I were strolling up and down the aisles of the Scottsdale Farmers Market. I was shopping for vegetables and fruits in my diversity-loving t-shirt. A woman I didn’t know, a vendor named Elizabeth, jumped out from behind her booth. She approached me with a loving, beaming smile. She insisted upon taking my photo in the “Love is Love” shirt. She wanted to send it to a friend back in Chicago, whose sixteen-year-old daughter had just come out to her.

Of course, I was happy to oblige since I’m gay and had lived in Chicago for most of my adult life. I told her I’d even bought the t-shirt at a Banana Republic store in Chicago on North Michigan Avenue. But more importantly, I know how frightening and challenging it is for a young person who’s gay, lesbian or transgendered to find their way. They need all the support they can get.

Yes, it’s Spring 2019, but even if you have a loving mom or dad, and community of people around you who believe “love is love” and treat you with respect, the world is still a complicated and often judgmental place.

Perhaps all of us–now as much as ever–need all the love and lovebirds we can get.

Nothing Too Straight or Taxing

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Last Thursday, when my husband Tom and I greeted our Chicago friend Todd at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, we didn’t know if we’d have time to squeeze in a tour of Taliesin West during his week-long stay. We wanted to give Todd plenty of time to relax, read in the sun, swim in our condo pool, and watch our favorite movies together. But, because Todd is an architecture buff on vacation, an excursion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic desert laboratory in North Scottsdale was near the top of his “to do” list.

I’m happy to report that today–on Tax Day in the U.S.–we fulfilled Todd’s and our architectural cravings. We drove north to immerse ourselves in Wright’s organic architecture. Fortunately, there was nothing too taxing about the experience. Only fascinating historic anecdotes from Harriett our trusty guide, grand horizontal lines connecting common-sense design with rugged nature, peace-inducing Asian artifacts from Wright’s travels, and expansive Sonoran Desert views from his functional living space and bedroom that faced west.

We three gay men didn’t witness too many straight angles during our ninety-minute immersion into Wright’s desert home and design school either. Instead, we found ourselves fully absorbed in the geometric patterns that surrounded us … like these three triangles that line the entryway to the Cabaret Room where Wright and his third wife entertained guests in their mid-century oasis near the foot of the McDowell Mountains.

I can imagine a roomful of wide-eyed architecture students gathered there in 1950. Wright holding court with grateful guests. Telling stories and sipping drinks with left legs crossed over and right arms resting on long rows of theatrical red seats placed at acute angles.

Witness Taliesin West for yourself next time you visit the Valley of the Sun.  It’s a design treat in the desert. Best of all, you won’t find it too taxing.

 

 

 

 

My Slargando World

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April ushers in a slower pace in Arizona. Following the departure of their favorite major league baseball teams that train in the Valley of the Sun, most snowbirds have already packed their bags and flown back to their primary homes. Now, as ninety-plus temperatures descend upon us, there’s more room to dine in restaurants. Fewer scooters to dodge on Scottsdale streets.

To borrow the Italian musical term slargando (a word I learned last night as my husband Tom and I played a rousing game of Balderdash with friends Carolyn and John from Alaska and Adele and Len from New York), I feel the onset of a gradually slowing tempo … a widening sense of time and space on the threshold that coincides with see-you-again-in-the-fall-or-winter conversations we’ll have as our friends depart next week.

All four of them are kind and interesting people we didn’t know five years ago. Now they are friends who walk and laugh beside us. Crave the next movie night in our cozy condo. Cringe with us at breaking news. Share our home for wine and pasta dinners. Treat us to trips on boats, a ready supply of salmon spread, and stories of their future plans.

In other words, they are our sixties comrades in our condo community. Friends who are just as comfortable leading the charge up a trail to the Desert Botanical Garden, following us into a different circle for one of my choral concerts, tagging along for Blarney Bingo on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Phoenix, or picnicking at a table under a Palo Verde tree at a local hangout in Tempe.

Needless to say, Tom and I are grateful for their friendship and the moments we share. Though we will miss seeing our part-time neighbors for the next several months, Tom and I will have each other and our creative aspirations to keep us busy through spring and summer. And, despite the heat, the coos of mourning doves nearby and the enchanting calls from mockingbirds and desert wrens outside our backdoor will keep us company.

Through it all, I’ll be content to walk and exercise in the morning with my husband, swim laps to keep my heart strong, and write my stories in my slargando world.

 

 

A Sense of Belonging … No Foolin’

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It’s April Fools’ Day. But there’s nothing foolish about recognizing the sense of belonging we all need. In fact, I think the safety and support of a circle of friends and a welcoming community are essential for us to bloom in a world of controversy and thorny problems.

All of this crossed my mind Sunday. I had just left the stage with my gay friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We were one of several LGBTQA choral and instrumental groups that performed at the We Are One concert. It was a rousing afternoon of uplifting music at the beautiful new Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix. I felt warm and loved there performing in front of an appreciative audience. To be clear, it wasn’t just the applause. It was because I knew I belonged singing on stage with sixty new friends.

I know I’m fortunate. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced the love and support of a circle of friends. In fact, I’ve felt a sense of belonging in many aspects of my life with my husband, my sons, my extended family, my neighbors in Arizona … and certainly with friends, neighbors and colleagues in the Chicago area before moving to Arizona almost two years ago.

But if you are different or disadvantaged in any way, you know this to be true: a loving community is paramount. Strangely–even in 2019–LGBTQA folks are rejected for who they are by their immediate family members. So, they are left to cobble together the families of their own choosing. This is especially troubling at a time when our own government officials seem determined to roll back rights and protections for American citizens in many circles.

So last night, after the We Are One concert, I needed to share the love I feel for my new circle of friends. I sent them a message. I told them how proud I am to sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. I told them how important they are to my husband and me. I told them that because of the music we sing and the friendships I’m making with all of them, I’m feeling their love and developing my own sense of belonging again.

To be honest, in 2017 when I said goodbye to another close group of friends at the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago–people I loved and performed with for seven years–I wasn’t sure I’d find that sort of community connection a second time. Especially after surviving a heart attack on the way west.

But I’ve found it again. I feel the love in Arizona. In my new home town. No foolin’.

 

 

 

 

 

Outside My Backdoor

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I love being a memoir writer. Telling meaningful true stories about the past can often provide clues and trends about life in the future.

But there’s a mental trap in all of it. As I hone my craft, I can get lost in a time warp. If I’m not careful, I miss what’s happening around me today. I need to be better at noticing the people, the moments, the images, and the sounds of life in the present. What it feels like to live life in March 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Maybe you’re like me. In a given twenty-four-hour period, my emotions can move from frightful to beautiful and back again, depending on the news cycle. And, though I am a critical thinker and active member of American society, I often resolve that I can make the greatest difference by focusing on the small things I can do to help my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community.

For instance, encouraging my husband to tell his story and find his niche in the Phoenix film community … serving as a sounding board and coach for my sons as they pursue their careers … cheering on a friend from afar as she begins a new life in a warmer place … picking up an elderly neighbor who’s fallen and needs help hanging his hummingbird feeder … and singing on stage with sixty other gay men to remind the world that love is love and we are one.

Today–on March 18, 2019–I decided to turn off the news for a while and turn up the volume on the real life around me. I took a long walk and worked out at the gym to keep my heart strong. I enjoyed lunch with my husband at home. I dusted off my digital camera and snapped a few photos of the cacti and pink blooms of the ice plant on our patio. And, as I write this sentence, a desert wren is chirping its heart out at the top of a palm tree on a breezy-eighty-two-degree-blue-sky day in the Valley of the Sun.

Perhaps the bird is sending me a message. That life is short. That I’d better embrace now. That beauty is right outside my backdoor.