Tag: January

Sad Saturday

I don’t normally dive headlong into political and social issues, but I feel a sense of doom and anger percolating inside me tonight after the acquittal of our previous president. I won’t mention his name here. I wish I had the power to encourage every media outlet to do the same, because what he wants more than anything is attention.

Today forty-three pathetic, posturing Republican senators disavowed a mountain of evidence presented by the impeachment managers, who connected the dots. They directly linked his unconscionable actions to an insurrection that caused death and destruction at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But our unnamed ex-president has slithered away unpunished once again.

I know the past twelve months have been difficult all around the world. Families have lost loved ones: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and children. But what we have endured in the United States has been monumentally horrible.

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from complications of COVID-19. As the numbers continue to mount, we’ve witnessed countless stories of unfortunate souls–many of them minorities–who have lost their lives and their livelihoods. We’ve watched as the evil of racism and hatefulness has surfaced and been fueled by rhetoric from the White House. It was once a hallowed place.

We’ve dodged crazy conversations with neighbors and ex-friends, who believe any number of preposterous conspiracy theories, especially the big lie of a rigged election, when all the facts and evidence tell us otherwise. We’ve shuttered our lives to survive, shrunken our existences to cope, masked our faces to protect ourselves and our neighbors, covered our eyes in horror at news reports, and swallowed hard to salvage any shred of our remaining dignity and sanity.

Now we are required to suck it up once again, and watch the shameful evidence of senior governmental officials who are more concerned with securing their political futures than what they were elected to do on behalf of the American people … to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I don’t know if there is a silver lining in any of this. But, at least eighty-one million of us had the gumption to choose a forty-sixth president, who has a heart and good intentions. Joe Biden has already proven he will roll up his sleeves and fight on behalf of all of the American people, even those who didn’t vote for him. He and Kamala Harris are doing what they can to right this sinking ship and ramp up the distribution of vaccines across the country.

But here’s the biggest question of all. Even if we survive this global pandemic physically, what will be left of our democracy if we allow our past president to walk away without ever paying a price for the deep pain and intentional harm he has brought to our nation?

My Lemon Tree Book is Live!

The trail of my literary life has led here. The Kindle version of my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, is now available on Amazon. (Paperbacks are in production and will be available for purchase at this same location on Amazon in the next few days).

The rush of adrenaline I feel today is at least as satisfying as books one, two and three, because I’ve devoted more than three years to this creative endeavor–imagining, developing, polishing, and agonizing over it.

In that sense, today is a combination of the exhilaration of unwrapping Christmas presents, skipping out the door on the last day of school, feeling weak in the knees the first time I approached the edge of the Grand Canyon, and hoping for a clean bill of health from my cardiologist. It’s all of that rolled into a freshly-baked batch of chocolate chip cookies.

In this anthology of Arizona stories, I dig deeper into themes that are important to me: the lasting love and comfort of family and friends; the humor, irony, and poetry in everyday situations; the profound beauty of nature and how it shapes us; the joy of realizing a literary life; and the conviction required to be an authentic gay man–a real gay couple–in a world often rife with ignorance.

As you might expect, the upheaval we have all faced in Coronaville (my name for our shared global address of uncertainty) is present here too. How could it not be? The pandemic has dominated our lives and–at its core–this is a non-sequential personal and societal 2017-to-2020 slice of life.

All of these themes–and flights of fancy (backward and forward in time) to visit familiar and new people and places–run through my book. They are the threads in this tapestry that has become my writing style. They are the elements of the sometimes-whimsical-sometimes-serious voice I have unearthed in my life with Tom in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert.

As we wait for our vaccinations and continue to hope we will recapture the most important strands of our disrupted lives, I think you will find comfort, honesty and humor in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. I also think it is a testimonial to the importance of our families, communities, and human connections as we strive to sustain ourselves no matter where we live, no matter where this journey leads us.

January’s Gift

Tonight there was more than a January chill in the air in the Valley of the Sun. As we returned home from our walk along the Crosscut Canal, we looked skyward. I scampered home to grab my telephoto lens.

Even as we stumble through the dark of a global pandemic, there is more to investigate and admire than what’s trending on Netflix. There is January’s gift. There is the beauty of nature.

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 Pledge of Allegiance

Because I am a writer, you might imagine it would be easy for me to put my anger and pain into words.

You might think it would be simple enough for me to describe the brutality our current president has brought to our country for the past four years or the shame and frustration I felt as I watched a mob of misguided lemmings follow his lead, storm the U.S. Capitol, and pillage it on January 6, 2021.

But it is not.

It appears (to at least half of us and the rest of the world) that we have lost our bearings, sense of righteousness, and humility. The rest (some of whom smashed windows, dishonored our House and Senate chambers, and scaled walls for a selfie) are content to wallow in lies, deception and misinformation.

Most of this destruction was perpetrated by a man who has no moral compass, no interest in the well-being of our nation’s citizens as we wander for another day through the darkness of this pandemic, as we watch the death toll grow, as we wait for a vaccine that is slow to arrive.

It’s time for a history lesson. It’s time to examine The Pledge of Allegiance–something I learned and recited in first or second grade as I stood by my desk with my hand over my heart back in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.

It’s time to ask: Do these words mean anything anymore? Do we still believe and adhere to these words that open our congressional sessions and have served as guideposts for our children, adults and–most important–government officials to follow?

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

If they do, we need to hold all of those involved–including the current president and his enablers– accountable for their treasonous and criminal behavior. We need to remove them from their offices, fire them from their jobs, convict them of their crimes.

We need to uphold our civil rights and liberties for the masses. We need to ensure there is justice for all.

What Shall Be

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It doesn’t matter if shadows stretch or fears fly,

If breezes blow or mountains move,

If blossoms bloom or battles blaze,

If dreams delight or courts connive.

In January, July or November,

Or somewhere in between,

You will remind me what was,

What is and what shall be.

 

Written by Mark Johnson

January 26, 2020

The Firsts of Fatherhood

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It was nearly midnight on January 24, 1984, when I held him for the first time at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois. My son, Nick, had just been born on a bitterly cold night in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.

His mother and I fell in love with him at first sight. His peaceful expression after a difficult labor. His tiny fingers and toes. His shock of dark hair that would soon turn blonde. I adored every bit of my firstborn son.

Today, on Nick’s thirty-sixth birthday, a lifetime of firsts are flooding my brain. Perhaps it’s because I know how far we’ve come in three and a half decades. Climbing the winding ramp to the upper deck at Wrigley Field. Watching him kick a soccer ball at two and, at five, size up his little brother Kirk when he came home from the same hospital. Marveling as Nick drained clutch three-pointers on the basketball court.

In later years, Nick and I endured more complicated chapters. Finding our way together after his mom and I divorced. Telling him I was gay. Introducing Tom to him and Kirk. Seeing the four of us bond over a comedic basset hound. Surviving testy teenage years. Driving Nick to the University of Iowa for his freshman year.

More recently, I’ve gotten to see Nick stand by Tom and me on our wedding day, say goodbye to his grandmother, sort through his career options, follow his dream and pursue a new life in Arizona, find crutches when he tore up his knee in 2017 (two months after I suffered a heart attack), campaign for a democratic senator in Arizona, and pick grapefruits, oranges and lemons from our condo trees this January.

In 1984, I never imagined any of these chapters … any of these firsts. Or that Nick and I would each leave Illinois and end up living ten miles from each other in the Arizona desert. But that’s where our lives have led to this point … far from the arctic cold of northern Illinois.

This morning, as Tom and I drove home after our gentle yoga class, I called Nick to wish him a happy birthday. I could hear happiness in his voice. He was out for a long walk on a beautiful day in the Valley of the Sun.

A beautiful day, indeed. Nick is my son.

 

Just One More Measly Treatment

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Arizona’s Crosscut Canal connects Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix. Depending on the day and the immediate weather, it can carry a trickle of water or channel a deluge of monsoon storm drainage into a network of other canals that irrigate surrounding communities in the Valley of the Sun.

One stretch of the canal winds between Camelback Mountain on the north and the east-west artery of Indian School Road on the south. It’s just steps from the office of Omni Dermatology where, since December 9, I’ve been meeting Amanda (and Claudia, her holiday replacement) three times a week for superficial radiotherapy treatments to bombard the invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand.

Today was treatment nineteen. I’ll be happy to see it end Thursday morning with session twenty. Certainly, I was ecstatic to hear Dr. R tell me yesterday that my hand has healed beautifully. Still, I’ll admit a strange sense of sadness is creeping into my soul. That’s because I will no longer share stories and perspectives with Amanda.

During each session, we’ve chatted as she applied gel to the back of my hand, rolled a detection device across my skin to monitor the regeneration of healthy cells, taped a square of metal with a hole in the middle over the suspicious spot, placed the blue flak jacket, matching collar and protective goggles on me, and lowered the radiotherapy “gun” until it was secured against my skin.

In the grand scheme of things, perhaps Amanda’s stories were designed initially to distract me from the real reason I was there, the real anxieties I felt at the end of last year. But, over time, we’ve gotten to know each other intimately.

For instance, we’ve engaged in conversations about her son’s ski team excursions to northern Arizona, the identifying southern lilt in her voice that came from her Georgia roots, her part-time job as a real estate agent, my passion for writing and staying relevant in my sixties, and her hope to celebrate her approaching fortieth birthday in Hawaii with her husband. Just today, she told me she purchased my first book From Fertile Ground and was excited to read it.

Shortly after her book-buying revelation, Amanda excused herself for a minute. She left the room. Left me to my devices. Hit the radiotherapy switch. Then, forty-five seconds later–after the quiet hum of the machinery had ended–she reentered the room.

“Just one more measly treatment,” I muttered as she gathered my protective gear.

“It’s so funny you would say that,” Amanda laughed. “Measley, with an additional “e”, was my maiden name.”

At this juncture, I realized the connections before me. The mystical and idiosyncratic language of our lives. The canals in the desert. The tributaries that run through our human interactions without us really ever understanding how and why.

I felt the same synchronicity in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. That’s when Jacob, an EKG technician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, ran a device and cool gel across my chest. As he performed his duties to determine the magnitude of the obstruction on the left side of my heart, I felt safe in Jacob’s hands. Evidently, he felt secure too, because in the following thirty minutes that day he shared his life story with me … that of a new father protecting his infant son and trying to adjust to a sleep-deprived schedule.

Perhaps because I’m more aware of my mortality in my sixties, I’m predisposed to pondering these present moments … what it felt like to connect with Jacob with my life hanging in the balance … what it will feel like to meet Amanda for just one more “measly” or “Measley” superficial radiotherapy session.

No matter the reason for my acute awareness, I’m ready to put this cancer scare behind me. I’m grateful for what lies ahead along the canal that trails through my desert life.

 

 

Another January

There are few certainties in life, but certainly January will always be a difficult month for me. It will always be the dreaded thirty-one days at the start of the year when grief reappears. When grief rattles my brain and reminds me of the final moments of my mother’s life on January 26, 2013, when grief introduced the real culprit: the void that took her place.

Strangely writing these sentences comforts me, just as writing From Fertile Ground–the story of my journey with grief–comforted me in 2015 when I needed it most. Just as reading this passage from my book (written nearly five years ago on January 27, 2015) comforted me this morning when I woke up at 3:30 and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

***

Chapter 12: Helen Came Home Today

My mother was cremated. About a week after she died in January 2013, I drove to pick up her remains.

When I arrived at the Illinois Cremation Society in Downers Grove, the attendant greeted me with a sheepish smile and carefully handed me the mahogany urn. You would think this experience would have cued tears and deep sadness within me, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt a quiet sense of purpose and a strange jolt of adrenalin. Maybe that was just another side effect of my grief.

Without hesitating, I tucked Mom’s remains under my arm, left the building, opened the passenger door of my 2012 Hyundai Sonata, and placed the container on the floor of the front seat. I couldn’t imagine the tragedy of putting Mom’s ashes on the seat itself and then facing the possibility that they might spill everywhere if I had to stop suddenly.

I scooted around to the driver’s side, opened my door, turned the key to start the engine, and sighed. This would be my final drive with my mother. Now some sadness was beginning to creep in.

Ironically, Mom never rode in this car when she was alive. I had bought it just eight months before, when she was already sliding deep into her physical decline. However, I remember one warm Saturday morning in the summer of 2012.

I was pushing Mom in her wheelchair, circling the Brighton Gardens grounds where she lived. She was wearing her powder blue baseball cap and green, cable-knit cardigan sweater. We completed one or two laps around the building and paused a few times to reflect and chat about my job, my sons, where I might be traveling next on business.

Before we headed back inside, I took a slight detour to the other side of the parking lot where my new car was parked. As we approached the car, I stopped near the right rear bumper and applied the wheelchair brake, so she could get a closer look within the limits of her macular degeneration.

We had a brief, but happy exchange:

“I bought a new car, Mom.”

“You did? What color is it?”

“Indigo.”

***

Tom and I still drive our 2012 Hyundai Sonata. It’s served us well over the past seven-and-a-half years. Most important, it got us to Arizona in July 2017 when everything else in our life seemed to go haywire.

Mom lived to be eighty-nine. Ironically, the odometer on our trusty indigo sedan is about to surpass 89,000 miles. I don’t know how many more years it will last. Though we change the oil regularly and do a decent job maintaining it, the upholstery is showing wear. The steering column creaks whenever we hit a bump. I need to take it to the dealer to check that out. It probably needs new shock absorbers too.

But other than a few hours of sleep, all isn’t lost. I have a good life in Arizona. Mom would have been happy for Tom and me … living in a warmer climate, sharing the joys and pains together, making new friends, holding onto those who’ve been with us all along the way, watching my sons evolve into the kind and productive adults their grandmother always knew they would be, telling my stories from the desert, coping with life’s misfortunes and maladies, doing my best to survive another January without her.

 

 

 

 

When Life Gives You Lemons

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Generations have insisted there is something wrong with lemons: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In other words, stop your whining and make the best of a bad situation.

I remember my demonstrative dad, a long-time salesman, declaring this in the 1960s. Perhaps he picked up this phrase from Missouri-born author and salesmanship lecturer Dale Carnegie’s 1948 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

Although, according to Wikipedia, writer Elbert Hubbard originally coined the phrase in 1915 for an obituary he wrote to honor Marshall Pinckney Wilder, an actor who overcame physical disabilities to lead a fruitful life.

Anyway, I know lemons are sour, but what’s so horrible about having a luscious lemon tree outside your front door? Nothing as far as this Midwestern boy can tell. It’s laden with ripe-and-ready fruits every January, cascading a clean citrus scent (think Lemon Pledge furniture polish), whenever I walk past it.

Last Saturday, I snagged eight lemons from our condo complex tree, reached to the top shelf in our kitchen cabinet for our juicer, found a lemonade recipe on line and made fresh lemonade. (By the way, in my previous lives … in Missouri, Illinois or even on my grandfather’s North Carolina From Fertile Ground farm … the climate would have never permitted this.)

Of course, I added more than a gallon of water and a cup and a half of sugar to the lemon juice to neutralize the sour fruit flavor. I poured it all into our retro Kool-Aid-style glass pitcher and found space in our refrigerator to let the liquid contents cool.

Then on Sunday, Tom and I, along with Nick and Aida (my older son and his girlfriend), each enjoyed a tall glass of cold lemonade to celebrate the fruits of our fortunate Valley of the Sun existence.

I love luscious lemons. When life gives you them (on neighborhood trees in January or otherwise), make lemonade.