I love sharing the company of friends and devouring the sweet, creamy goodness of a wedge of cake. When they appear in the same space at the same time–in this case celebrating the launch of my latest book on Sunday, March 28–that’s a perfect day.
One of the Polynesian Paradise board members invited me to talk about I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree and sell and sign copies of my book. He even picked and gathered a half dozen lemons from the tree near our front door and placed them in a bowl on a table in the front of the condo clubhouse.
So there I was, seated at the front of the room, at the table with the lemons and copies of my books at two o’clock on Palm Sunday. Outside, through the glass, I could see children and adults splashing and playing in the pool, framed by palm trees. Inside about thirty-five neighbors and friends sat and stood, fanned across the room before me.
With my husband Tom, older son Nick, and his girlfriend Aida observing in the front row, I had that moment every writer dreams of. I had the rare opportunity to read a few stories from my latest book out loud. I had the chance to talk about why I love to write about the things I do: nature, family, community, and life’s serendipitous moments.
It was a remarkable and unexpected thrill, made possible by the acceleration of vaccinations across the country and in our condo community. Those in attendance even signed and gave me a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion. Tom and I will pop the cork on that at a later date, just to remember the moment once again.
Without question, we have come a long way in one year. We’ve felt the pain, the losses, and the sadness. We’ve done our best to endure the social retreat. I know this pandemic isn’t over, but the numbers of cases and deaths have diminished. Life is better now. Thanks to science and the availability of vaccines, we’ve begun to reemerge.
It sure feels great to see friends and to socialize again … and to eat cake.
This week marks five years since I completed and published my first book, From Fertile Ground. In celebration of the anniversary of my entry into this literary life, you can download a free Kindle copy of my book on Amazon from March 24 through 28. What follows is the story of what brought me to this moment. If you are an aspiring writer, I hope reading this will provide a little added encouragement.
If you look and listen closely—and breathe deeply—you will find spring stirring in the Sonoran Desert. Sweet and fragrant orange blossoms dance through the air. Lizards and ground squirrels reemerge to scamper and soak up the sun. A hummingbird darts and twitters in a Palo Verde tree. I imagine a lone loon, descending from a blue sky, is practicing for his pilot license. He receives clearance from nearby Sky Harbor Airport traffic control and lands with a graceful whoosh that ripples in the Crosscut Canal. A monarch butterfly flits and rests on a bud near the fence of the Desert Botanical Garden, pausing long enough for me to creep in for a closeup of nature’s transformation.
This central Arizona winter-to-spring progression is a warmer, dryer, more gradual shift—a far cry from the flurry, upheaval, and calm of a midwestern lion-to-lamb experience I had been accustomed to for my first sixty years. Nonetheless, it is a March metamorphosis.
Five years ago, like a clumsy butterfly, I emerged from my own cocoon. At age fifty-eight, I launched my first book From Fertile Ground. I remember the anticipation and anxiety of March 24, 2016—the day my book emerged—as I moved from wannabe writer to published author.
I felt exhilaration. It was as if I were boarding a rollercoaster, gripping the bar tightly, grinning ear to ear, throwing my arms in the air, and shouting “Look over here” as my book entered the literary universe. Maybe I sound immodest, but it was and is such a thrill to have discovered this better-late-than-never renaissance.
Previously, as a busy single dad and on-the-go communication professional, the idea of writing on my own terms seemed like a faraway neverland of creative euphoria. But slowly, as I drifted from the gravitational force of my previous orbit, I felt the magnetic pull of an artistic life.
This literary life sprung from a personal void, molded from the fog of my grief after my mother died in January 2013. At that point, I was lost with plenty of tears, but without the language of emotion that normally came easily for me.
Fortunately, I was not alone on my journey. Thanks to the encouragement and support of my husband and a skilled therapist, I forged ahead, jotted notes in my diary, took a few nature photography classes, and slowly stepped away from a thirty-four-year advertising, PR, and consulting career. It had sustained my bank account and carried me through leans years of single fatherhood, but ultimately drained my energy and creativity.
Early on, after my corporate “retirement” there were moments of doubt and uncertainty to contend with. Even so, the more I wrote in my journal, the more I felt my voice begin to emerge. Within a few months, my writing and reading led me out of the darkness into the light.
A litany of wisdom-filled letters my mother sent me—along with a boxful of more than fifty years of diaries my grandfather left behind—spurred my creative impulses. I sequestered myself and perused them all. They spoke to me and my love of family, heritage, and history.
One day in 2014, as I turned the yellowing pages of my grandfather’s rural life—his spartan existence—an idea surfaced in my brain. It told me to weave a tale of three writers telling their stories across the generations, leaving behind a trail of their own words. In that moment, I found a new passion. From Fertile Ground was born. So was my life as an author. I prepared to emerge from my cocoon.
A year of daily soul-searching, writing and editing passed. In late 2015, I finished my manuscript. With the help of a friend, I found an editor and graphic designer—Anna and Sam—who came highly recommended. They both lived and worked in Nashville, Tennessee.
Instinctively, I liked hiring professionals with connections to the South, because much of my story shared a border with Tennessee to the east—in the rolling red earth of rural North Carolina. That is where my mother was born, where my grandparents owned a farm, and where my sister and I frolicked and spent parts of our summers in the 1960s.
Anna provided me with her recommended edits in January 2016. Following that, I collaborated with Sam. With my input, he created the cover for my book, designed the interior pages, formatted the text, and loaded it into the Amazon self-publishing software.
By late March 2016, I held the first copy of my book in hand. Friends and acquaintances began to send notes telling me they enjoyed reading my book and were moved by it. It was a joyous period in my life, far from the tears and fog that had preceded it just a few years before.
I take long walks in the desert and collect photos to stir my imagination. I marvel at the beauty and continuity of nature that surrounds me. I give thanks for the gift of life in a warm and rugged place.
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.
In March, most of the United States springs forward, switches to Daylight Savings Time, and loses an hour until fall. But not here in Arizona. Time stands still in the Grand Canyon State.
I like the continuity of our steady clock. It’s one less adjustment to make in a world of constant change. This morning, I grabbed my digital camera and took a one-hour walk–the same amount of time lost elsewhere last Sunday–and photographed south Scottsdale.
These are the best images I captured in my community on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. It was a cool, quiet stroll along the Crosscut Canal. The pictures tell the story. There is plenty to love about Arizona. This is where time stands still, but life goes on.
It was the afternoon of Thursday, March 11, 2021–six hours after Tom and I returned from Phoenix Municipal Stadium with our first injections of the Pfizer vaccine rushing through our bloodstreams, but without any side effects.
About the time Joe Biden was signing the landmark $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill (one year after the world shut down), I was rummaging through a mish mash of my deceased parents’ papers in a catch-all accordion file. My goal was to purge unwanted and unneeded materials to make room in my desk drawer for more current items.
I stumbled upon a startling, historically relevant promotional polio awareness flyer (printed in 1957). The two-sided piece encouraged parents to protect their families against polio. The copy began:
“There is enough vaccine for you and your children–see that you get your share NOW. Protect your own family before polio strikes again.REMEMBER … adults need polio vaccine as well as children. Severe cases occur among those aged 20 to 35 years and over …”
The flyer goes on to describe the need for a series of three shots. At that time, the approved protocol was to get the first two spaced two to six weeks apart. The third, a booster, was recommended seven months to a year after that.
On the back of the flyer, produced by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, there was enough space to record the dates the polio shots were given to the four of us in our family–Walter, Helen, Diane and Mark–in the late 1950s.
Based on the information recorded there, it appears my sister, mother and I received all of our polio shots in a timely manner, plus Diane and I got a fourth shot in late April 1959. I vaguely recall that we also received follow-up polio vaccinations at school in the early 1960s.
Sixty years have passed. Worries about polio no longer appear on the social radar.
According to historyofvaccines.org, because of widespread vaccination, polio was eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994. However, in the United States it is still recommended that young children receive the polio immunization at two months, four months and then twice more before entering elementary school–due to the risk of imported cases from other parts of the world.
Now the conversation with cohorts in our condo community (and in neighborhoods around the world) is about slowing and preventing a different ghastly disease and protecting ourselves and others by getting COVID-19 vaccinations. These are the questions of 2021:
Did you get a vaccination appointment? … Is it Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson? … Have you had any side effects?
Sometimes there is comfort knowing that frightful occurrences have come and gone. That previous generations have survived other calamities by taking proper steps. That history is there for a reason, if we allow it to pave the way toward awareness, education, and greater understanding.
Our job is simple. Listen to the scientific experts. Follow the guidelines. Get vaccinated when it is our turn. Expect minor discomforts like a sore arm and fatigue for a few days. In the scheme of possibilities, that isn’t much to ask of every American, every global citizen. It’s an easy to do list and much more preferable than the alternatives of serious illness, potential death, lingering despair, and continued isolation.
At this point, all Tom and I need to do is to drive to Destination Vaccination–the Phoenix Municipal Stadium–one more time for our scheduled second doses in three weeks. That will happen on April 1. In spite of that being April Fools’ Day, there is nothing foolish about following the lead of science. I will keep my commitment and get the job done.
Rest assured, I also will save my 1950s gem of polio vaccination history. I will place it back in my family history accordion file. It will always lead me down a trail to a time I never want to forget.
In my previous life, working as a consultant in the human resources world, I often helped companies communicate with employees about changes to their benefit plans.
Inevitably, this included grandfathering certain groups of long-service employees–insulating them from the benefits changes that would affect newer employees only.
This story is not about benefits. But in a sense it is, because I think my grandfather–Sherrell Richardson (S.R.) Ferrell–benefitted the world like all bloggers do when we leave behind our words, impressions, and observations.
S.R. penned his spartan, daily diary entries for more than fifty-two years–1933 to 1985. I featured a few dozen of his diary entries in my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation writer’s mosaic about love and loss, which I wrote and published after my mother died.
Though S.R. scribbled all of his thoughts in long hand in tiny diaries and worked without a laptop or access to the internet, he lived like an early blogger extraordinaire–going about his rural North Carolina routine as a hosiery mill worker and later a farmer. At the end of each day, he recorded the minutia and magnificence of his days.
Born on March 9, 1901, today would have been S.R.’s 120th birthday. In honor of my him (and the writing impulse that motivates and haunts all of us bloggers), my grandfather is my guest blogger today.
This is what S.R. Ferrell wrote fifty-nine years ago on a momentous Tuesday. It also appears as the opening to chapter two, Off Into Space, in From Fertile Ground.
Thank you for leaving behind a trail of your life, S.R., and Happy Birthday.
Tuesday, February 20, 1962
Watched Glenn’s capsule take off into space at 9:47 a.m. It made 3 trips around the earth at altitudes from 100 to 160 miles and the time for the three circuits was 4 hours 56 minutes and 26 seconds.
I went to Huntersville to send money order for insurance premium. Went to see Frances and boys.Fair. Cool. Ethel came by in afternoon. Martha Auten came to get turnip salad.
It’s not quite spring, but changes are brewing in the Sonoran Desert and elsewhere. Like a gusty, forty-mile-an-hour wind that rattled our bougainvillea and stripped palm leaves last night, there is something new stirring in the air.
Maybe hope is returning, in the form of fluffy, tangerine-colored balls dangling from branches. The sweet acacia trees have begun to perfume the Valley of the Sun.
Through much of the year, these shrubs prefer to stretch horizontally with little fanfare. But when the blossoms appear, they take center stage through the scent that intoxicates desert paths.
The tiny blooms remind me how much my life has changed from the pink-and-white magnolia trees of the Midwest. As a child in Missouri and an adult in Illinois, I watched as singular warm days of spiky temperatures in March and April seduced them to bloom early, only to be tricked by a later frost or snow that browned the petals.
Hope is appearing on the horizon in other forms. My sixty-six-year-old sister just texted me a masked photo of her seated after she received her first vaccination in Chicago. I suppose I’ve been worried about her, because I shed a few tears as I studied the image. I could glimpse the smile in her eyes, though her face was obscured. As more of us get vaccinated–and a storehouse of worry is released–I expect a river of previously pent-up emotions will flow around the world.
On Tuesday, Arizona expanded the COVID-19 vaccination sign-up process to include those 55 and up. Right after noon, Tom and I agonized over our laptops. We kept refreshing like feverish slot players at a casino grabbing the bar for another chance at a jackpot. After an hour or so of hand wringing and cursing, we were lucky to crack the code of online registration.
We are scheduled for the first round of vaccinations on the morning of March 11 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, just a few miles from our home. I don’t expect to enjoy the prick of the needle in my arm that day. It won’t come close to the alluring scent of the acacia trees or the thrill of a few more friends stopping by to purchase signed copies of I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.
But, like millions of others around the world, I’m fine with minor inconveniences and discomforts. Small side effects from a life-saving vaccine–miraculously tested, approved and produced in less than a year–will pale with the prospects of dodging COVID-19.
Yes, I’m more than ready to board an express train to a freer and more promising destination. I suspect you are too. I’ll see you in the sweet land of fortunate and grateful survivors. We’ll be there, like thousands of others, smiling from behind our masks.
This catastrophic day began innocently and pleasantly enough. At 8:55 a.m. Tom and I pulled up to my dermatologist’s office. I returned for a follow-up visit with Dr. R … seven weeks after the last of my twenty superficial radiotherapy treatments designed to heal my left hand.
After I waved to Amanda, his assistant who I bonded with three times a week for the second half of December and two-thirds of January, Dr. R. scanned my left hand and pronounced it healed. Sweet relief. Happily, his recommended course of action eradicated the evil invasive squamous cancer cells that set up shop in November.
Tom and I celebrated with a walk along the nearby cross-cut canal. We inhaled the desert air, saturated with the scent of blooming orange blossoms. At one point, we crossed paths with an Australian shepherd named Ozzie and his walker. (The Baby Boomers in us joked and wondered if her name might be Harriet.) No matter. The adorable tri-colored pooch had one brown and one blue eye. I should have known the day would deliver mixed results.
The tide turned. I received an ominous text from a friend. He’s a healthcare professional. Over the weekend, one of his clients tested positive for COVID-19. I texted back. “I’m here for you. Let me know if you need or want to talk.” Earlier in the day, I sent a similar message of support and encouragement to another friend, quarantined in his home with symptoms and a horrible week-old story about his inability to get tested in a broken healthcare system.
As the day progressed, I worried about them both. I tried to maintain some sense of normalcy. Tom and I–teetering on a tightrope between our colossal canal experience and the pandemic realities of our day–squeezed in a game of Scrabble at a local coffee shop.
Though it may sound ill-advised, a trip to our community gym followed to release our anxiety and strengthen our hearts and surrounding muscles. We wiped down the machines before and after our workouts, kept our distance from a smattering of other familiar patrons, and slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer on the way out the door.
This is what a global pandemic will do for you. Chaotic and cataclysmic. Stunning and surreal. News you can’t deny or escape. A hoarding society of empty shelves of toilet paper. An ill-equipped nation trying to flatten the curve. An under-qualified-and-over-inflated president (that’s the kindest description I can offer).
More bad news every moment. Rising numbers of infections and death. Endless lists of school and work closings. Restaurant and bar closings. Church and gym closings. No yoga classes for the next three Fridays. No in-person choral rehearsals on Tuesdays with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus until April 5. We’ll try singing via telecommuting. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of its season to no earlier than mid-May. That’s the least of our problems, though we would welcome the late-arriving national pastime.
Of course, these are all sound decisions. Life and death decisions. Declarations to hunker down and distance ourselves–groups of less than ten only please–as more than ten “leaders” stand in two rows in front of common microphones. A plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped another 3,000 points before the bell finally rang today.
What does it all mean? We’re told the worst is yet to come. This feels awful enough. Indeed, most Americans would prefer to forget March 16, 2020. But we’d better remember it when we vote in our general election in November.
Better news later in the afternoon here in the desert. A ray of natural beauty appeared outside our front door. Hopefully, a hand-delivered harbinger of love. Delivered by the month of March.