Tag: Inspiration

Pondering the Puzzle Pieces of Past Lives

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The dusty attics, dog-eared scrapbooks, and forgotten files of our past don’t always provide answers about mysterious deceased family members. But often they are all we have, once those who remembered them are gone too.

I have no memories of Albert Edward Johnson, my paternal grandfather. Just second-hand stories about the man with slicked-back blonde hair who died when I was three. Random photos and puzzle pieces that, when connected, leave me with an unsubstantiated picture of Albert. Tales of who he was, where he lived, what he believed and what he aspired to do.

Based on a patchwork of anecdotes, passed down from my parents, aunts and uncles, apparently this is the man I never knew.

***

Albert, an idealistic boy, was born in Duluth, Minnesota on January 10, 1884.

His mother Sophia Amelia Danielson and her family immigrated from Stockholm, Sweden when she was a teenager. They lived in Quebec, Canada for a few years before traveling to Minnesota. His father Bernt Franklin Johnson was born in Breen, Norway. Sophia and Bernt met and married in Duluth and had six children (Dan, Ben, Josie, Jenny, Albert and Carl).

When Albert was ten years old, he and his family moved to Anniston, Alabama where his father operated a grocery store on a Native American reservation. I don’t know what prompted them to move more than eleven-hundred miles south in 1894. Perhaps they simply needed gainful employment or were tired of the cold.

Subsequently, around 1900, the family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where the Johnson men worked in the meat packing houses. Evidently, the job didn’t suit Albert’s sensitivity. Helen, Albert’s daughter-in-law and my mother, told me the shrieks of the slaughtered animals were too much for him to bear.

Albert was a health-conscious and  athletic young man: an amateur wrestler; Mississippi River rower; and cross-country racer. According to family members, he competed in the 1904 Olympics marathon in St. Louis. I have no proof he participated, but I choose to believe it.

In 1907 or 1908, Albert met and married Anna Louise Sendke in St. Louis. They raised three children: Thelma and twins, Violet and Walter (my father). Albert wasn’t home much during Walter’s childhood years (1913 to 1925). I’ve always wondered where his travels took him and who he met along the way.

According to my dad, Albert valued intellectual stimulation, political discourse and philosophical conversations. At some point (in the 1930s perhaps), Albert–a lifelong Democrat–pursued a career in local politics. He ran for state representative twice, but lost both times.

During that same period, Albert tried his hand at motivational speaking and received an honorary doctor of divinity degree. The public speaker you see here (standing on a stool in an athletic shirt in the foreground of a Depression-era, Milwaukee, Wisconsin gathering eighty-eight years ago on August 3, 1932) believed one should choose a career or path that maximized his or her greatest innate skills.

In his own words from a stained 1943 “Biodynamics: The Science of Power” handout he must have used in one of his lectures, “we will not be happy, healthy or successful unless we choose as our life work some line of endeavor towards which we have a strong biological tendency.”

In the 1940s, Albert, the man who earlier in his life only rarely brought his son with him on trips north from St. Louis to Chicago or Milwaukee, wrote and sent encouraging letters to Walter overseas to bolster his spirit as he fought in the Battle of the Bulge near the end of World War II in Europe.

During the last several years of Albert’s life, he and Louise lived with their eldest daughter Thelma and son-in-law Ralph at their home in north St. Louis County.

I vaguely recall sitting on the edge of Albert’s twin bed in his empty room in the early 1960s soaking up the silence. It was a few years after my grandfather, the one-time athlete, fell on the steps of a restaurant during the holidays, broke a hip and succumbed to pneumonia.

Albert died on December 30, 1960 at age seventy-six.

***

Until this moment, at age sixty-three and one month, I’ve never considered the collective attributes and personality traits of Albert and my three other grandparents–Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–and how they may have shaped the calling in my life: that of a late-in-life creative writer.

But as I think about each of my grandparents, I recognize their DNA strands coursing through me: Sherrell Ferrell’s love of nature and From Fertile Ground journalistic sensibility; Georgia Ferrell’s love of animals, gift of gab and laughter; Louise Johnson’s  sense of personal loyalty and soap-opera storytelling drama; and Albert Johnson’s quest for intellectual stimulation, personal fulfillment and public discourse.

I don’t believe each of us is simply a product of our biological past. We are each unique human beings … like snowflakes that fall and add irreplaceable texture to the sky. But I do think these varied qualities and preferences may have shaped my direction and influenced my choices on life’s path more than I’ve previously realized.

Of course, what you read here is all mine: ideas, opinions, stories and experience.  But history, both personal and societal, counts for something. It informs my stories about the power of nature, animals, relationships, family, diversity, sensitivity, and social justice. Because there is at least a little bit of all four of my grandparents–Albert, Louise, Sherrell and Georgia–in me.

You might say I’ve had a “strong biological tendency” to be a writer and storyteller all along. It’s written in my DNA.

 

 

 

 

 

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Iridescent Scales

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You survive … no, thrive … scampering from shadows to shade, shimmering across scorched soil, ignoring what lies and lurks before you, replacing fears and pitfalls with truth and tenacity, imploring less reptilian ones to follow the flicker and flight of your iridescent scales.

 

Carousel Questions

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Carved and colossal, how long will you stand in shiny, sterile silence?

Round and repeating, what has happened to your cotton-candy companions?

Merry and mighty, what will become of your wheel of carefree independence?

***

On this Independence Day holiday weekend in the United States, we have so many hot spots. So many worries. So many questions. So few answers. One thing is certain. We’re better off  celebrating this Fourth of July safely and quietly at home.

If you find yourself feeling queasy from news reports, missing the carousels of life or in need of a little inspiration, consider getting lost in a true story of reflection, hope and survival.

From July 3 through July 7, you can download a Kindle version of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, on Amazon for just ninety-nine cents.

Stay well, my friends!

Fresh Lemonade

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On the last Sunday of June, a windy and warm Arizona morning that blew the safari hat off my head, another 3,857 Arizonans were likely blown away too–metaphorically at least–when they learned they had tested positive for COVID-19.

I’m not making light of this health crisis and a horrible situation. I’m just tired of the burgeoning numbers, those who still question the need for masks, and the lack of leadership in the White House and the Grand Canyon State. At the moment, only Florida and Texas (two other hot spots) are outpacing us in senseless behavior, cavalier attitude and sheer stupidity.

As I consider our painful pandemic plight as a state and a nation,  I’m doing my best to live above the fray. To focus on the little things in life that give us hope, especially in these dark hours.

Like the neighbor who waved to me this morning as I watered the flowers on the back patio of our condo complex. She drove up, paused to lean out her window, smiled and said, “Thank you for beautifying our place.”

I needed that boost from an unexpected source. Her act of spontaneous gratitude and kindness included no monetary reward. It was simply the gesture that mattered. And the knowledge that I was making a small difference in the eyes of one of my neighbors … an older woman I don’t know by name but pass occasionally in the laundry room.

A few hours later, Tom and I approached a sign on our morning walk as we rounded the lake at Vista del Camino Park. A nine-or-ten-year-old girl (with her dad, brother and the rest of her family) was selling fresh lemonade at a makeshift stand.

We didn’t need the lemonade. We already had water bottles in hand to stay hydrated. But my immediate impulse was to encourage her entrepreneurial nature anyway. From behind my mask, I handed her two dollars and admired her hard work on a hot day … hoping I could bolster her spirit just as my neighbor had done for me.

Two simple acts. What do they mean? COVID-19 or not, we’re all in this world together. Whether we like it or not, we affect and influence each other. We and many of our friends and acquaintances–or total strangers in the next zip code west–are struggling to get by emotionally if not physically.

We all need encouragement to survive this period. Fresh lemonade to keep the faith. Positive vibes for those fighting for their lives in hospitals and homes. Smiles … from behind masks at safe distances … to remind ourselves that this dark period will end one day.

For our sake, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

 

The Long Arc of Life

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The world is full of complicated and thorny problems. Perhaps it’s fitting that on Father’s Day Tom and I bought and brought home our own private potful–a tiny saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea)–from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Despite their prickly nature and my aversion to being stabbed by sharp objects, in my first three years of Arizona residency, I’ve come to feel comfort from the surrounding saguaro cacti. If you follow my blog, you know that. I’ve posted photos and a few poems about this fatherly tree-like species that is native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico.

Saguaros grow slowly. Our little guy … let’s call him Sammy Saguaro … stands no more than six inches tall, yet he’s probably at least ten or fifteen years old. They can grow to be forty to sixty feet in height and live one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred years.

Of course, I’ll never see Sammy grow into that stature, but I’m happy to watch him develop slowly. I like the idea of his anticipated longevity. Especially in this age of COVID-19, it’s good to remind ourselves of the long arc of life … where we were, how far we’ve come, how many setbacks we’ve endured, how far we hope to grow in the future.

Like in the 1990s, when my mother would measure the heights of Nick and Kirk against the side of her St. Louis pantry door when we visited from Chicago. She knew her grandsons would grow and go places. She wanted to mark their progress, see the smiles on their faces when they saw how far they’d advanced since the previous pencil marking. Since the previous visit. So did I.

I still feel that way about my sons. Even though they are now in their thirties and fully grown physically, I can see them slowly expanding their reach. Stretching toward the sky in an uncertain world a little at a time.

Each time I talk with one of them over the phone, I realize how far they have come. How far they have to go. That’s what it means to be a father. That’s also why it’s important that Sammy is standing outside our back door.

In this vein of remembering and marking growth, in spite of the pain of 2020, I’m reminded of an historic moment that occurred five years ago. This is what I wrote in From Fertile Ground on June 29, 2015 from Mount Prospect, Illinois.

In the scheme of things, it marked a remarkable, sharp, positive turn in our nation’s complicated history. One I’ll never forget. One I hope is never rescinded.

***

It’s a cool and wet June morning. In our front yard, the sparrows are fighting for position to pluck seeds from the perch of our bird feeder, dangling from a branch of our river birch. On our deck in the back, the first orange blossom of the summer has appeared and opened on our hibiscus tree. More color, more beauty, more promise.

I’ve been feeling more joyful since last Friday when the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples can now be married in all fifty states. This is a civil rights triumph of monumental proportions. For gay people everywhere in the United States–and for future generations who will be born into a more open society–there is now the same equal opportunity to marry the person they love.

The day after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, our friends Greg and Dan were married in Chicago. They had planned their marriage ceremony months ago to coincide with their twenty-fifth anniversary of when they became a couple. It was a boat ride on Lake Michigan with family and close friends.

Tom and I held hands on the top deck of the boat as we listened to them exchange their vows on a windswept-slightly cool but sunny Chicago afternoon. There were happy tears and raucous cheers for Greg and Dan, of course. It was their day and a long time in coming. But it was also our day to mark the occasion of a sharp positive turn in our nation’s complicated history.

Perhaps President Barack Obama best captured the spirit of this giant step forward immediately after the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, he said:

This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are treated equal, we are all more free.

Fathers of the Desert

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Empirical and imperfect, you are the keepers of the west.

You bear fruit for mourning doves.

You guard cottontails and creosote.

You stand sturdy and erect.

You love, fear and forgive.

Your spiny symmetry shades our world.

You cast lengthy shadows.

You fall mightily.

You are the fathers of the desert.

You remember everything.

You forget nothing.

You are the proof of yesterday, the path of today, the hope for tomorrow.

The Wonder of Purple Summer

In popular American culture, there is boundless emphasis on achieving success, material wealth, and happiness before you turn thirty.

That’s not a recent phenomenon. Consider every car ad you’ve ever seen that plays on a loop during the holidays with a cooing couple in love and big bow tied outside on the latest red, silver or black luxury sedan or SUV.

Yet, for most people, the premise is fraudulent and anxiety producing. In reality, it takes much longer (sometimes your entire life) to find your path, push your head above water financially and (if you’re lucky) discover some level of creative contentment.

For me, the monetary success didn’t come until my forties. Creative contentment came later. In my fifties. But it didn’t appear in an office or a cubicle. With a client or a colleague.

It began to surface ten years ago today … on June 19, 2010 … at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.

That night, as we prepared for two performances of Summer Lovin’ (our Pride concert), I found myself surrounded on stage by fifty new friends (with Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria) in Chicago’s thriving gay community. Diverse and talented people I had known for a mere three months.

At that moment, I didn’t know these kind cohorts–instrumental in my personal renaissance–would carry me across the creative threshold that night and become some of my most enduring friends. But that’s what happened for this member of the Windy City Gay Chorus for the next seven years.

I was smitten and felt my spring awakening (we were still a few days short of summer) when a circle enveloped us newbies, a stirring song (Walk Hand in Hand) swirled over and around me, and a red rose landed magically in my hand minutes before our 5 p.m. performance.

Then, on cue in the first act, we performed The Song of Purple Summer (written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) from the musical Spring Awakening.

It still makes me cry. It holds me captive.

***

And all shall fade
The flowers of spring
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything
But still it stays
The butterfly sings
And opens purple summer
With the flutter of its wings
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder of purple summer
And yet I wait
The swallow brings
A song too hard to follow
That no one else can sing
The fences sway
The porches swing
The clouds begin to thunder
Crickets wander, murmuring
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder of purple summer
***

On this night ten years later … in this age of tumult and fear … I feel the sadness and longing in this song.

But there is also comfort in this memory and the soaring voices of my Windy City friends.

In the spring of 2010, they ushered me to the wonder of purple summer.

 

Three Junes Ago

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What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

The Golden Hour

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Between 2004 and 2009, Helen stood patiently on her third-floor condo balcony and waited for the fleeting color to appear near the end of each day.

Her inanimate accomplice was one of those disposal Kodak cameras from Walgreens. It soothed her shutterbug sensibility.

Nature photography was the perfect hobby for a woman in her eighties, who loved art and the clockwork of the calendar and the seasons.

Earlier in her life, she worked too hard to find the time to anticipate and ponder the legacy of sparkling sunsets.

But, as the remaining rays in my mother’s life flickered on the northeastern Illinois horizon, she found comfort in the hues that came and went.

Like a National Geographic photographer on assignment, she felt it was her duty to capture the most vivid color of each passing day.

***

Whenever Tom and I walk west after dinner toward the Papago Park buttes, I feel Helen’s anticipation … how she might have felt if she’d seen the Sonoran sunsets of our sixties.

During the last few years of her life she asked, “Do you think you and Tom will retire in Arizona?”

It gave her comfort to know we might fall in love with the western sky.

After the heavy lifting of our responsibilities was through, she could imagine our stunning sunsets … the colors, lights and textures.

She could dream of the golden hour after she was gone.