Tag: Healing

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Earthing

Here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve been fortunate to practice gentle yoga outdoors with five dear friends for the past eight Fridays. This poem is dedicated to our shared experience and sincere hope for citizens around the world, who breathe the same air and search for the same peace.

***

We close our eyes. The sensory memory takes us there. Six souls spread apart for one hour on eight consecutive Fridays. Inhale … exhale.

We practice gentle yoga together under a shade-producing pine. Far away from viruses, ventilators and varnished walls. Inhale … exhale.

We press against imperfections. Blades of grass pump tranquility through lungs and limbs. We absorb the Earth’s energy and stability. Inhale … exhale.

We find our edge for the next tree pose. A westward breeze whispers past needles and branches. A desert wren answers in affirmation. Inhale … exhale.

We conjure six souls beyond arid Arizona. Earthing elsewhere. China or India or Italy perhaps. Dodging a virulent virus. Inhale … exhale.

We search for the same peace. We press against the same ground. We cling to the same planet. We breathe the same air.

 

What Happened Seventy-Five Years Ago?

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Sometimes, long after a chapter is written, lived or buried, you unearth a grainy photo and analyze it more closely. It prompts you to consider what you suspect, but will never really know. That the truth of war, like global pandemics, is often too painful for the traumatized to reconcile, resolve and recount.

***

Who was the Czechoslovakian girl posing in May 1945 with my father Walter A. Johnson, a sergeant in the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division? What became of her in those days after Nazi Germany surrendered? What happened to her parents? Did she have siblings? Were they split apart by the war? Did they ever reconnect? Did she have nightmares about death and destruction like the ones my sensitive father carried back with him from Europe?

I’ve fabricated my own scenario about the photo and Dad’s handwritten message on the flip side. Maybe Walter simply wanted to share a harmless, tender image of his war experience with his parents, Albert and Louise, and his older sister Thelma … without acknowledging the bloodshed.

Perhaps he needed to pretend that everything in his world was all right even if it wasn’t. To imagine that in the madness of war he had been able to put his arm around and comfort at least one lost soul in the land he would leave behind. Even if it wasn’t his own.

One of Walter’s old army buddies–Corporal A. W. Donahue from Holyoke, Massachusetts–apparently knew him well. He wrote this in Dad’s pocket-size My Life in the Service book:

“The best-natured and biggest-hearted guy I’ve met in the Army is my old pal, Walt Johnson.”

Though I’ll never really know what happened seventy-five years ago in Europe, I am fortunate to read and hold this record of my father’s true nature, along with a short stack of family letters written and mailed from St. Louis and Chicago in 1945. The handwritten and typed sentiments would help keep his spirits afloat, when he thought he might be destined for another round of duty in the Pacific. Fortunately, for him and me, that never happened.

In the coming days, I’ll be sharing excerpts of at least one of the letters he received from Thelma. It was just like him to tuck them in his foot locker and bring them all home.