Tag: Healing

The Texture of Our Lives

What have I missed most over the past year? The spontaneous moments that spring from nowhere. And, let’s face it, going nowhere pretty much describes what we have all experienced from last March to this one.

But, like the daffodils of March which I imagine are aching to bloom again in Illinois, the feeling of going nowhere is turning into the possibility of going somewhere as flickers of normalcy return.

My cousin Phyllis, who lives in Missouri, texted me a fun Happy St. Patrick’s Day message yesterday afternoon. It always brightens my day to hear from Phyllis. Her mother and my father were twins. We share lots of fond, long-ago, St. Louis memories.

Over the past nearly-four years, Phyllis and I have stayed in touch (via text mostly) since Tom and I last saw her and her family in person in St. Louis. Strangely, I suffered a heart attack in St. Louis the day after we dined with my cousin and her family. Tom and I were on our way west to our new home in Scottsdale when our entire world turned upside down.

Anyway, the texts back and forth between Phyllis and me are bursts of positive energy: wellness check-ins; holiday greetings; news and photos of her adorable granddaughters; snippets of stories about our beloved St. Louis Cardinals; exchanges about the weather in the St. Louis area and Scottsdale; and anecdotes about the latest developments in my writing universe. But, over the past four years, we have rarely spoken on the phone.

Yesterday, after our latest text exchange began, I decided to change things up a bit. I needed more. I needed to hear Phyllis’ voice. So I called her. We shared stories of our recent vaccinations and our grown sons. We laughed a little. We also complained about the state of the world that worries us. Our conversation felt deeper and more complete than the text exchanges. I realized after the fact how much I’ve been missing these kinds of conversations.

As all of us have retreated during twelve months of a global pandemic for our own protection, perhaps we have retreated too much. Perhaps, though we live in a world where we have the ability to text each other, we have created too much social distance between us and those we love. After all, we are human beings. We are social creatures. Even if we can’t touch each other, we need to feel as if we can. Our voices are instruments for making that happen.

A second example of me trying to recapture some spontaneity in my life happened this morning. I drove to Eldorado Pool for my morning swim. The pool was rather busy, but I spotted my friend Frank. He offered to share his lane. I thanked him and jumped in.

Before March 2020, Frank is someone I saw two or three times a week at the pool. We always traded random stories. This usually consisted of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants or our past lives on different trajectories in the Chicago area. Frank and I frequently connected on the fly in the stream of life. It was never planned. If it were, I think it would have felt less human, less important.

Of course, when our world shrank in 2020, there were no Frank-and-Mark encounters. When the pool was closed and the winter weather lingered longer than expected, that passing-friendship aspect of my life evaporated. Now that the weather is warming up, I expect to see Frank more regularly. We will share more of our foodie stories, pounds we need to relinquish from our pandemic doldrums, and the burgeoning construction activity in south Scottsdale that is growing up around us.

Yes, the thousands of lives lost due to COVID-19 are the worst of all. But the little moments, which comprise the mosaic of our lives, have been missing for far too long.

While we continue to wear our masks and shout with joy at the realization that the pace of vaccinations is increasing rapidly, it’s time we paused, breathed deeply, and began to recapture the texture of our lives.

Many Happy Returns

Like clockwork, the wildflowers are blooming again in Arizona. Daisies and poppies are beginning to soak up the sun in fields, on yards, and along roadways. Pandemic or not, this burst of color and continuity occurs every February and March in the Sonoran Desert.

I think Mother Nature is trying to show us something astounding and reassuring about the power of her regularity. She’s at her best when she delivers beauty on her own terms and schedule, unimpeded by the twenty-four-hour news cycle. It is simply our job to notice her actions, absorb her displays, and allow them to calm our spirits as we wait for pieces of our pre-pandemic lives to appear.

On Tuesday, I wrote about returning to swim at Eldorado Pool after a year-long, COVID-19-induced hiatus. I swam again on Thursday. In the past week, there have been other hopeful signs. Blooming like Arizona wildflowers, a series of separate occasions outdoors with friends–all uplifting–have renewed my spirits.

Last Saturday night, Tom and I drove to Glendale to watch a movie under the stars with Danny, Shea, and Michael. It was a cool, windy night for Arizona. We bundled up to watch an action flick under individual blankets.

On Monday, Tom and I dined on a restaurant patio with Pavel and Rick. On Wednesday, we consumed a potluck meal under a gazebo with Adele, Len, Carolyn, and John. All four comrades in our condo community continue to support my writing addiction.

On Thursday evening, Tom and I ventured back to a nearly empty indoor movie theatre for the first time in a year. Behind masks, we watched Nomadland, a stirring story of loss and hope set against the grand landscape of the American west. On Friday, we reconnected with Paul, another friend from a different strand of life. Like the wildflowers, he has just reappeared.

This morning we laughed and joked with Garry, a chorus friend, and his partner James. Together we polished off four doughnuts under our recently pruned fig tree. I’ve missed Garry’s raucous sense of humor and positive energy. He bought three of my books.

More safe social steps are coming in the next week to carry us further down the path of healing: a movie with John and Carolyn tonight; a stroll with Brian and Bernadette at the Desert Botanical Garden tomorrow; a visit with George on Monday evening. Tom and I have grown close to him. He’s bringing steaks for the three of us to grill. Then, later in the week, another dinner outside with Len and Adele at one of our favorite Scottsdale restaurants.

Suffice it to say, Tom and I are lucky to have all of these friends in our lives. I didn’t intend for this to sound like a reemerging social calendar. More than that, it’s my latest batch of evidence concerning how important in-person human connections are, how much we need each other to survive and be happy. Zoom interactions and text messages aren’t enough to sustain us.

Yes, it’s been a week of many happy returns, a flurry of book sales, and several steps and strokes in the right direction. I’m thankful for them all and the opportunities ahead.

As Tom and I wait to be fully vaccinated (Garry and James already are), I feel an inoculation of hope. We’re finally beginning to rediscover the friendship strands of our lives. We’re poised to bloom again in the Arizona sun.

I’ll Be Seeing You

Like many of you, I know grief. It is that clumsy, unwelcome house guest we imagine will never leave.

When it arrives, grief dominates our lives. It keeps us awake at night, saturates our sensibilities, zaps our strength, and slows the progression of time.

At its onset, grief feels like a heavy stone we must carry in our pocket. A character in the 2010 dramatic film Rabbit Hole describes it that way. With time, we grow accustom to the stone. We become grateful for the stone, because we realize it is all that remains of the person we loved and lost.

One day, without expecting it, grief is less heavy, less present. The achiness has packed its bags and moved on. We aren’t sure why or where it has gone–maybe down the hall, across the street, or into the next zip code. But grief is never far away. It returns to comfort us on milestone days: birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

Grief appears on regular days too. It leaves little reminders to certify our humanity and frailty. It lingers in the cool air and warm sunshine of a spring day. It hangs in the lyrics of an old nostalgic tune, I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Peggy Lee. It grows on the window sill in the perennial bloom of an African violet.

It’s been eight years since my mother died at age eighty-nine. January 26, 2013 was a bitter morning in the Chicago suburbs, meteorologically and personally. About 2 a.m., my sister Diane called with the news.

Immediately, Tom and I bundled up and drove twenty miles south (from our home in Mount Prospect to Mom’s third-floor apartment at Brighton Gardens in Wheaton, Illinois).

That morning I kissed my mother’s forehead and patted her hand one final time. As my husband and I left the building, a full moon dominated the frozen sky.

Grief moved in with us that day. At the time, I didn’t know it would repurpose itself and transform from a stone to a familiar fog to a blanket of possibilities.

But grief is cagy. It can be an enemy or an ally. It became my muse, the catalyst for my creativity. With grief by my side, between 2014 and 2016, I wrote and published From Fertile Ground.

Over the past five years, friends, acquaintances, and readers I will never meet in person have posted heartfelt reviews. They have told me how the story of my grief–and my grandfather’s and mother’s written legacies–helped them examine their lives, process their sadness, and restore some semblance of hope.

Writing the book was my catharsis too. Like the final line from the Peggy Lee tune which describes my feelings of loss perfectly–“I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”–the pages of my book are permanent evidence of the grief I felt, which diffused with the passing of eight years. On days when I need confirmation of what 2013 to 2016 felt like, I can pick up my book and remember.

After our wise, nature-loving mother died, Diane did a kind thing. She divided up Mom’s African violets–one a shade of pink, the other a purplish blue–for the two of us to carry forward and display in our respective homes.

The plants originated in St. Louis in the 1980s or 1990s. They traveled to the Chicago area with Mom in 2004 when she moved north to be closer to us in her final years.

In July 2017, when Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, we wedged them in a laundry basket in the back seat of our Hyundai Sonata. Ultimately, we deposited them on our southern-facing window sill in Scottsdale.

In 2019, the pink African violet died, but the lone one is a survivor. It captures the warm rays of the Sonoran Desert sun. It blooms every winter and has chosen this week–eight years after Helen Johnson left the world–to dazzle us once again.

When I examine the vibrant blues and greens the plant offers, it eases my mind. It reminds me that memories of the mother I loved and her lasting impact are never far away. That the mind-numbing initial waves of tears and grief led me to a softer reality, which is bearable, tender, and life affirming.

Even as we wander in the dark through the depths of this global pandemic, there is strange comfort knowing grief will always be there in some form or another to acknowledge our past, present and future losses. Because if grief never appeared, we would discover a harsher reality … that we never loved at all.

Thank you, grief, for filling the void. I’ll be seeing you.

The Christmas Star

Jupiter and Saturn owned the winter solstice sky tonight over Phoenix. About 6:30 p.m., Tom and I were fortunate to capture the duo shining side-by-side, forming the Christmas Star between two saguaros in Papago Park.

As we prepare to say goodbye to the pain and heartache of 2020, there is no better way for me to wish you and your family a healthy and happy Christmas and a new year of hope, peace and bright possibilities.

All Spaced Out

We were all spaced out in Phoenix last weekend. Recording tracks for our Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus holiday concert that will appear on YouTube on December 20.

For safety sake, Marc, our artistic director, divided us into groups of ten or so. Group A had the morning slot Saturday. Group C the evening. I was one of two tenor twos singing in the afternoon in Group B in the “big box” room at the Parsons Center.

There I was. Standing in my blue hoodie in front of a mike, my binder of music, and a music stand. Wearing a safety shield and headphones with ear condoms. Gathering (loosely) with my gay comrades in the space where forty or fifty of us ordinarily rehearse collectively on Tuesday nights in a non-pandemic year.

Certainly, I felt strange, sanitized, and scattered. Like a sketchy character in a Ray Bradbury novel. Wandering and wondering where I would fit in the sci-fi story line. But as we began to run through our set–We Need a Little Christmas, The Nutcracker in About Three Minutes, Let It Snow, Feliz Navidad, and so on–an ounce of sweetness surfaced in the moment.

As we sang, I felt a twinge of the giddiness, excitement, and adrenalin of performance day appear. If you are an actor, singer or instrumentalist, you know that feeling of exuberance on stage. Of course, there was no one in the audience to applaud or validate what we had to offer musically. But that will come with time.

Magically, the sounds we produced on Saturday–and individual images we manufactured and projected in front of a green screen the previous week–will meld in the editing room in the next two weeks. Soon after, the end product will be unveiled. People will watch (or not), smile (or not), applaud (or not).

Some of us will even shed a tear or two. Because we know what losses we have endured in 2020. Now, more than ever, we need a little music. We need a little Christmas.

On Our Path

She whispered November, though each step spoke September. No grey to brighten. No chill to thaw. Only cerulean skies. Proud pomegranates. Lonely lizards. Fading roses. Towering eucalyptus trees. Swaying suspension bridges.

In her Arizona embrace, we stood by banks of dusty monsoon memories. We crossed dry creek beds flowing with tears. We shielded our eyes from the sun. We moved ahead on our path. We listened to the language of lingering leaves.

Thankful

There is nothing idyllic about life in November 2020. The best we can do is wash our hands, wear our masks, keep our distances, hug (only metaphorically) and pray for our loved ones, apply regular coats of hand sanitizer, disavow false claims of voter fraud, limit our exposure to anxiety-producing news items, contribute to our favorite charities, and find a way to keep living.

Even in this dark period, I continue to sing with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. Most of our rehearsals have been conducted via Zoom technology. Recently, we have divided ourselves into small groups of seven or eight for in-person rehearsals on Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursday nights.

I show up on Thankful Thursdays to practice holiday music. It’s a scene from a sci-fi movie. Individually, we check our temperatures at the door, fan out ten or more feet apart across a large room, wear masks and an additional layer of protection behind a face shield. Our artistic director and accompanist (also behind masks and shields) proceed to lead us from afar. The experience is as remote as it sounds, but in 2020, it’s the best we can do.

When rehearsal is through two hours later, we spray our chairs with disinfectant, turn the lights off in the room, walk out the side door into the Phoenix moonlight, return to our cars separately, and drive home.

We are rehearsing one of my favorite songs, Thankful (words and music by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, and Richard Page), for our December online performance. It’s a stirring piece I first performed in Chicago as a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus in 2012. It gave me goosebumps then, but the message is more universal and relevant eight years later.

I hope reading these lyrics will bring you a little peace. It’s a mental space I will travel to when I sing this song from behind my mask tonight. Even with all the pain and heartache in our lives, we have to believe we will get through this.

There’s so much to be thankful for.

***

Some days we forget to look around us. Some days we can’t see the joy that surrounds us. So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Look beyond ourselves, there’s so much sorrow. It’s way too late to say, “I’ll cry tomorrow.” Each of us must find our truth; it’s so long overdue.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Even with our differences, there is a place we’re all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

Riding High in Gatlinburg

GatlinburgTN_August1970 (2)

In August of 1970, I felt I had lost my father. The trauma of his World War II emotional scars, heart disease and bi-polar diagnosis had consumed him. My thirteen-year-old self-consciousness and his fifty-six-year-old discontent didn’t know what to make of each other.

It seemed like the only thing Walter and I shared was our love for the St. Louis Cardinals. Muggy but mighty moments together in the bleachers of Busch Memorial Stadium. Watching Bob Gibson dazzle and dominate National League hitters in the sixties, while Lou Brock stole bases and our hearts.

But beyond baseball, the schism between my father and me was more than a “generation gap” (a phrase you never hear any more). It felt as if a grand canyon–a dark and sinister abyss nothing like the Arizona wonder four hours north of me by car in my sixties–existed between us.

As Dad pursued my love, validation and respect, I withdrew further into the fear and anxiety of my crowded teenage closet. My sister and mother felt the weight of Dad’s unhappiness and family drama too.

Yet, fifty years ago with Walter behind the wheel of our boxy Chevy Biscayne, the Johnson family from the St. Louis suburbs (Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark) threw caution to the wind and set sail on a summer vacation.

Our destination? Huntersville, North Carolina–seventeen miles north of Charlotte–where we would spend a week with my mother’s family on the rocky-but-fertile ground of my grandparents’ farm in the Tar Heel State.

Past the midpoint of our journey, we drove up and around the hairpin curves of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Dad guided our clunky sedan into town, where we were welcomed by the grits and glitz of Gatlinburg.

Spontaneously, soon after we parked, we decided to board a ski lift (technically, the Gatlinburg Skylift) into the August mist. Mom and Diane boarded first. Dad and I trailed behind, climbing over the tall trees shrouding Crockett Mountain. I don’t remember much more about the day. Only that it felt as if the four of us had escaped our troubles into the clouds of Tennessee for a few hours.

More than five decades have passed. Since 2017, I’ve more closely identified with my father and his plight, because of my advancing age and our shared mild heart attack experiences separated by fifty-five years.

The grief for Dad has felt more palpable to me in the past three weeks, because the baseball team we loved and cheered for in the humidity of St. Louis summers–the team I still love today–has suffered through a COVID-19 outbreak; to date ten players and eight staff members of the St. Louis Cardinals have tested positive for the virus.

When the outbreak first appeared in late July, the team quarantined in a Milwaukee hotel for several days before heading back to St. Louis to live in isolation in early August, like so many ordinary citizens in a country consumed by viral hot spots.

During that time, the other twenty-nine Major League Baseball teams played on. But the St. Louis Cardinals sequestered themselves for more than two weeks, hoping for a string of several consecutive days of negative testing, which would clear them to resume their season on the field.

As the Cardinals season went dormant, I felt depressed. A portion of my past and present life had been pealed away and thrown in the dumpster. It was as if the last remnant of the troubled father I loved (a man who fought for his country and died in 1993) had been stripped away and laid to rest. His team. My team. Our team had become another COVID-19 casualty.

Finally, the fog–like a Gatlinburg mist–has begun to lift. This morning Diane sent me a text from her suburban Chicago home. “Cards driving forty rental cars via I-55 to Chicago … Playing fifty-plus games in forty days. Hope you’re feeling better. Love you!”

Indeed, on Friday, August 14 the St. Louis Cardinals are driving in separate cars from St. Louis to Chicago to resume their baseball season on Saturday. After a seventeen-day hiatus, Dad’s, Diane’s and my redbirds will resume their baseball season on August 15. They will play a doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox and a third game on Sunday, before a five-game set (including two more doubleheaders) against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals will begin the long climb back with a new batch of young players from their farm system on their roster and a veteran, big-game pitcher–thirty-eight-year-old Adam Wainwright–on the mound. He’ll start Game One in the Windy City.

If the Cardinals are able to finish their season, they will complete fifty-five contests in the following forty-four days. It will require a herculean effort by a team with a rich history. Eleven World Series championships, more than any other National League franchise.

No matter how this version of the Cardinals perform, I feel the tide of hope returning. Seeing them back on the baseball diamond will feel like a victory. Plus, Diane and I will still have each other, our bittersweet memories of family vacations, and a string of glorious years to recall cheering with Dad for Gibson, Brock and the Cardinals.

Now, our 2020 team is about to take the field to restore a little of sanity to our world. As they do, I have the memory of Dad and me side-by-side on a yellow chairlift. Him with his trusty Daily Word magazine of inspirational thoughts tucked in his shirt pocket. Me smiling, but brimming with worry as I gripped the lap bar tightly.

In spite of our differences then, Dad and I had much more in common beyond baseball in 1970 than I knew or ever imagined. Together, we were fighting for survival. Riding high in Gatlinburg.