Tag: Inspiration

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

Bavarian Bliss

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Munich  (“Home of the Monks”) is much more than beer and pretzels.

The capital of Bavaria and the third largest city in Germany has deep roots. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they wind and trail back to the Benedictine monastery at Tegernsee, which was founded in 750.

Nearly twelve hundred years later, more than forty percent of Munich’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing raids during World War II. Today the city is a hub in the banking industry and home to the annual two-week Oktoberfest celebration, which ends on the first Sunday in October.

My husband and I toured Munich on September 15. It was a quiet Sunday about a week before all of the beer-laden and oompapa festivities of Oktoberfest. All of the shops were closed, but that didn’t faze us. We were content to ogle stylish Oktoberfest apparel through storefront glass and soak up summer temperatures. We couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day to navigate the normally bustling Marienplatz on foot.

We craned our necks skyward when the Glockenspiel in the New Town Hall played promptly at 11 a.m. Afterwards, we discovered a charming cafe and dined outside. We filled our bottles with fresh water streaming from a city fountain. Next, we were ready for a defining moment: climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Church for An Unobstructed View of the city’s historic skyline.

At this point, I realized how far Tom and I had come. I’m not talking about the actual distance from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to Munich, Germany, via a congested connection through Montreal with a sea of tired travelers. I’m referring to our personal journey.

After my cardiac event in St. Louis on July 6, 2017, the notion of climbing 299 steps skyward anywhere (much less in a tight space with few opportunities to pause) seemed implausible. Yet, without fanfare, on the last Sunday of summer in Munich two years later, Tom and I paid three euros a piece to an attendant for the experience of saying we had done it. We entered the church for the pleasure of mounting steep and circuitous steps. We joined a trail of able-bodied adventurers, who flowed up and down around us.

To the top of the church spire we climbed. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the pinnacle. We took a deep breath or two and stepped out into an open-air observation area, where steel bars shielded us.

Together we wrapped our way around the circumference of the tower. We gazed across the horizon. We took a few more extended and grateful breaths. We captured a series of photos of a storied city.

Without the effects of beer or pretzels, we found our Bavarian bliss.

 

 

Lost and Found

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You were lost. Stranded on a concrete path. On the way to nowhere. Far from food and water. Farther from home and hope than you knew.

You didn’t mind when we intervened. We carried you in careful palms. Wind in your face. Legs suspended. Each step we took felt like a mile.

You were ready to roam when we reached your desert oasis. We lowered you to the water’s edge. Your feet touched the ground. You never looked back.

You were found.

 

A Path I Might Have Missed

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There you stood, rare and bright. Defying the odds. Shining in a field far away. Flourishing in a wide open world. Sparkling in the foreground of my dreams.

I still see you, sunny and true. Unfolding under the sky. Craning for a mountain view. Growing taller everyday. Promising petals on a path I might have missed.

Written by Mark Johnson, September 6, 2019

Still Counting in September

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“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel that they are joined — to strengthen each other — to be at one with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”

George Eliot — English novelist, poet, journalist and translator

***

George Eliot had it right. Memories are a powerful human connection. Without a moment’s notice, we can be transported back to a person, time, and place. Often, this happens as we complete our simplest daily activities at home in the kitchen. Pouring a cup of coffee. Biting into a crunchy apple. Stirring a pot on the stove. Or, in my case, counting and depositing pills into a tray.

On the surface, this may seem like a purely clinical exercise. But it was something significant I did for my mother during the last several years of her life as her macular degeneration worsened. As her dementia deepened. Every other Saturday morning, I drove twenty miles from my home in one Chicago suburb to hers in another. Each time I counted out two weeks worth of medications for her.

Of course, our visits consisted of more than medication administration. We shared late breakfasts, early lunches, short walks and longer stories about our lives and love of family and nature whenever her health and the weather permitted. Neither of us ever imagined I’d  write about our journey years later in what became From Fertile Ground.

Yesterday in Arizona, as I was filling my own tray of medications for the coming week, I was reminded of those intimate Saturday mornings with my mother. Sorting her pills in past Septembers. Doing what I could to help sustain her life for another two weeks as the late summer light in northern Illinois produced elongated shadows.

Of course, it was all worth it. I would do it all over again. But at least now I have the memories to savor. At least I’m still counting in September.

 

This Bowl of Life

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Over the past four months, I’ve shared stories about life at a community gym in Scottsdale, known as Club SAR. My husband and I work out there frequently.

In May, I wrote about my altercation with a bully there. It shook me to the core, but I resolved To Stand Tall. I haven’t encountered any problems since.

In June, The Gym Reaper appeared and prompted me to write about her. Fortunately, she left without me or any other victims (that I know of).

In July, I observed tenderness and tenacity outside the boxing ring. Two men inspired me to write The Boxer and the Theatre of the Mind.

Now, in August, I have more to say. I have a deeper understanding of what this place represents for many of us who exercise there. Boxers in the ring. Rows of joggers on the treadmills. A steady stream of bodies lifting weights on a Saturday morning. A friendly and dedicated staff that greets us every day.

Clearly, it’s much more than the burning of calories that keeps all of us coming back. It’s the sense of community we feel … even love, perhaps … that gives us the hope we need to keep going. To keep fighting. To live another day.

This realization hit me as a friend left the ring and approached me. He smiled when he told me he’d found a new and better-paying job. That he was a recovering methadone addict. That he had once been homeless. That somehow he had climbed his way back. That the structure of boxing at Club SAR is an important part of his recovery. We hugged and I encouraged him to keep going. To keep telling his powerful story. Certainly, this is a community he desperately needs.

And he’s not alone. Another friend finished her circuit of weights and told me that her father’s health was failing. His long battle with multiple sclerosis had worn him down. She’s planning to fly across the country to visit him this coming week. This may be the last time she’ll see him. We traded contact information. Tom and I told her she should feel free to reach out to us at any time.

A third friend at Club SAR is working to rebuild his life after the devastation of an opioid addiction. His path to recovery has been long and arduous. But he’s making significant progress. He’s back at work now. He keeps fighting. Tom and I see him playing basketball and lifting weights on occasion. He’s joined us at our home a few times for dinner. We’re trying to make a positive difference in his life.

And then, of course, there’s me … a recovering heart trauma patient. I complete my cardio workout several times a week. Thankfully, the experience of my mild heart attack two-plus years ago has faded to a large degree. Life feels more normal now than it has for a long time. I think I’ve needed this community … this extended family … as much as the rest of the folks I’ve described above.

Sure, it’s up to each of us individually to overcome our own spiky problems. But we’re better off together. Taking care of our bodies. Our minds. Our spirits. Sharing our stories in this bowl of life.

 

Where Will the Staircase Lead?

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As a Midwestern kid of the 1960s, the last few weeks of summer never felt like an ending to me. Though the leaves on the trees would gradually yellow, turn brown and inevitably fall, the approach of September spelled a renewal of sorts. New possibilities. New hopes. New dreams. New beginnings. All of it hinged on the promise of a new school year.

Of course, I’m no youngster anymore. I’ve been out of school for decades. Technically, out of the workplace, too, since 2014. I’ve moved away from the hustle of Chicago and live a quieter life in Arizona. But, I’m no dinosaur. I’m fully aware of the troubling signs in our country and world (I’m leaving this vague purposely; you can define it however you wish), and yet I try to maintain a sense of optimism as we all prepare to turn the page to another season … another September.

Every time I sit down in front of my laptop to tell another story or write another poem, I feel a giddy sense of creative anticipation. My motivation is simple. It’s what I was meant to do. This life-affirming need to write runs through my blood. It’s spurred me to write and publish three books (something I couldn’t have foreseen five years ago). It keeps me learning, growing, exploring and seeking new ground. It keeps me relevant. It keeps me vital. It keeps me wondering. It keeps me asking personal questions such as these:

“What will the next semester (it’s my semester with my syllabus) bring?”

“Where do I want to devote my creative energies in the coming year?”

“Should I focus on developing a book of my poetry? Would anybody read it?”

“What about teaching a memoir-writing class?”

“Should I dive back into the fictionalized story I’ve begun to build?”

“Am I better served to continue telling my stories here?”

“No matter what I decide, what kinds of new friends will I meet along the way?”

“Is my writing making a positive difference in the lives of others?”

All of these thoughts have been racing through my mind as I read the stories of friends and acquaintances online. Emotional messages about defining moments as they send their children off to school. To begin first grade. To start the last year of high school. To drive or fly to that adventurous freshman year of college … away from home, away from mom and dad. To launch a new job and career as a school counselor (as my younger son just did) welcoming new challenges and fresh faces.

This is the good stuff of life. New beginnings. Moving along the unpredictable path. Educating ourselves. Broadening our horizons. Enjoying today, but also looking forward from time to time. Charting our creative journeys. Reminding ourselves of our gifts and how they can make a difference in the world. Imagining the possibilities as we climb ahead and wonder  … “Where will the staircase lead?”