There was a moment on Saturday morning–about two thirds of the way through the Phoenix Heart Walk with my husband Tom, friend Todd, son Nick and his girlfriend Anastasia by my side–when I spotted this young man holding a homemade sign.
His presence and the message along the three-mile route touched me. I stopped to take his picture, hugged him, and thanked him for being there and sharing his heartfelt message.
I don’t really consider myself a heart “hero”, though our Heart Walk 2023 team I “coached” and dubbed “Friends for Life” did raise more than $2,000 in the fight against heart disease and stroke.
Thankful “survivor” feels like a better fit. Especially when I look back on that day nearly six years ago when Tom and I endured our most difficult and frightening moments individually and as a couple.
It was July 6, 2017, our collective sixtieth birthday. After feeling breathless on a humid summer day, I found myself lying on a gurney in the bowels of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
After suffering a mild heart attack, I waited impatiently for two teams of heart specialists–actual heart heroes–to remove a blockage in the left side of my heart and insert two stents.
Fortunately, since that tumultuous day I have been able to transform my health. With a little luck, thirty fewer pounds to carry, and a lot of hard work, support, and exercise, I’ve lived longer, written more stories, and created a whole new existence in the Valley of the Sun. You can read all about our journey in An Unobstructed View.
Certainly, I’ve come a long way since 2017. Far enough that on Saturday, March 25, 2023–after completing the Phoenix Heart Walk and crossing the finish line–I stood with family and friends on the streets of Phoenix and breathed deep.
Along with the thousands of others in attendance, we “heart heroes” celebrated and embraced a sunnier, more hopeful day.
We are human, not robots. So, we all do it to some degree or another. We reflect on seminal moments that have passed rather than living in the present.
In my case, that means occasionally remembering the full moon, which dominated the January horizon the morning my mother died in 2013.
Or–further back in my psyche–the sweet scent of magnolia blossoms, emerging in late March on the front lawn of my suburban St. Louis childhood home. Often, mother nature tricked them with an early April frost that turned the pink petals brown.
Oddly, when we aren’t contemplating the past, many of us focus on the future. We anticipate significant events–personal and social–that approach.
We ponder pressing issues ahead, such as paying the rent or mortgage when it comes due at the end of the month, speculating on the latest batch of troublesome news on the world stage, or waiting impatiently for medical test results.
Though I am a memoir writer–and soon-to-be-published poet (stay tuned)–once-unforeseen yoga sessions (which I now practice frequently on the aqua mat of my sixties) teach me that I am better off focusing on the space in between the memories and the what ifs.
It is the breathing in and out that keeps me whole as I write this sentence on the keys of my laptop. It is the random chirping punctuating my afternoon in the palm tree outside my back door.
It is the rushing water of life, which currently swooshes through the normally dry Salt River gulch in Tempe, thanks to frequent rains in the Valley of the Sun and melting snow from Arizona’s high country.
At this moment in time, I need to remind myself that it is all of these things–happening now–that make life rewarding and meaningful on an otherwise gauzy Wednesday in March.
It was late February of 2020. Todd, a good friend from Chicago (we sang together with the Windy City Gay Chorus for several years), was visiting Tom and me here in the Valley of the Sun.
While he was in town, we enjoyed creative conversations about books, films, and music. Visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West studio/architecture school in north Scottsdale. Hiked in the desert at Papago Park. Saw Beautiful–the musical about Carole King’s life–in Tempe.
Of course, a few weeks after Todd returned to Chicago, it felt like there was nothing beautiful to celebrate. The world shut down. Thousands died quickly. Waves of fear, disease, uncertainty, and grief inundated all of us.
Friends and families–isolated from each other–found creative ways to pass the time. Some of us wrote books that included stories about the experience. We prayed we would survive.
Now, in March 2023, many elements of our pre-Covid lives have returned thankfully. But my sense is that as a culture we Americans would prefer to pretend Covid-19 never happened, in spite of the mountain of evidence and losses that tell us otherwise.
No doubt, it will take years for all of us–no matter where we live–to recover emotionally.
Still, the good news is most of us did survive. We’re finding ways to reengage with friends and loved ones. To celebrate life. To reignite relationships and make new memories together.
On that score, Todd is returning for another visit next week. Tom and I are excited to spend time with him again. To share new and old movies with him. To discover what’s new in his life since we last hiked together three years ago.
As it happens, Todd’s 2023 visit coincides with the Phoenix Heart Walk on Saturday, March 25. He and Brad (another singing friend who I met performing with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus) will walk with Tom and me.
I’m thrilled that they will both join us for a Saturday stroll in the sun to raise funds for the American Heart Association (AHA). Every dollar will help fund groundbreaking research to keep hearts beating and build longer and fuller lives.
When I told my AHA contact, Karen, that a friend from Chicago would be walking with us to raise money for the cause, she suggested I name our team. As I was jogging on the treadmill yesterday, the name Friends for Life came to me.
After all, it is friends like Todd in all circles–Arizona neighbors, Chicago friends, fellow performers here and there, family members, yoga pals, film enthusiasts, writing colleagues, professional advisors, gym buddies, etc.–who enrich my world.
Many of them (from Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Tennessee) followed my lead and have already made donations to the Phoenix Heart Walk.
I am eternally grateful for their support, because–as you know if you follow my blog–heart disease is personal for me. I am walking on March 25th as a tribute to my mother and father, who died of heart-related illnesses and, symbolically, to thank the doctors and nurses who saved my life and helped me recover in 2017 after I suffered a heart attack on the way west with Tom.
Please click on the link below and support this worthy cause. Every little bit helps. Because, unfortunately, heart disease is universal. It remains the number one killer in our nation.
Yet it is the love extended from our hearts … and the friendships formed with people all across the country (and with those of you all around the world who have bonded with me through this page) … that make life so meaningful.
Whether you decide to contribute or not, remember this: you can make a difference by giving your time, talent, and money to the people and causes you are most passionate about.
It’s March. The Christmas cactus adorning our den is definitely a late bloomer–and so am I. I turned 65 in July, but that number hasn’t deterred me from continuing to write, sing, and create.
When I close my eyes, I can still channel 18-year-old unaware me. Tall and thin with long straight blond hair in 1975. Seated in an uncomfortable wooden fold-down chair. Legs crossed in Middlebush Hall on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia.
I was an aspiring journalism major. One of a few hundred freshmen and freshwomen taking a required business course. Bleary-eyed from guzzling too much beer and demolishing late-night Shakespeare’s Pizza, we listened to our Marketing 101 professor.
He waxed on about demographics and American consumption. We doodled in our spiral notebooks.
What I remember most is that he told us the range of consumption occurred between the ages of 18 and 65. That’s when Americans had the most disposable income to spend.
The implication was that life, purpose, and relevance stopped after that. After retirement. After 65.
Of course, these days, life expectancy–for those who live to be 65–is more promising. But nothing is guaranteed.
At any age, “seize the day” is a smart strategy. Especially in your later years when (at times) it feels like you are riding in a runaway wagon racing downhill. Even if on most days you are enjoying the freedom and wisdom that comes with age as the wind rushes through your greying hair.
All of this is preamble to tell you that I am on the cusp of publishing my 5th book. It will be a collection of my best poems. Many of them explore love, loss, identity, discovery, disorientation, transformation, realization, and acceptance–spun through the ever-present influences of time and nature.
I began writing poetry in 1993. I was newly divorced, raising my boys as a single dad, working long hours as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in Chicago, dashing for commuter trains, grieving the loss of my father, and beginning to understand myself and my emerging gay identity.
I have written dozens of poems over the past 30 years. Stashed them in an ever-expanding Word file. (If you follow me, you know I have shared some of them here over the past four years. The act of doing that has fed the poetry beast inside me. He’s now ready to emerge.)
Yes, at age 65 it thrills me to defy the logic of my marketing professor. To assemble my poetry and share it publicly–all in one place–for anyone who chooses to consume it.
Warmer, brighter, and dryer than my midwestern memories, the arrival of April in the Sonoran Desert means we are a step closer to the oven.
I’ve come to welcome the regularity of the sun and heat. They define who we are: slimmer survivors, comfortable in shorts and sandals minus the cloud cover and weighty coats of our past lives.
No matter the month, if you’re willing to dig beneath the palms that frame the burgeoning Phoenix skyline, you’ll find the Japanese Friendship Garden (named RoHoEn) coexisting with concrete in an urban setting.
Planted at 1125 N. 3rd Avenue (just west of Central Avenue and south of I-10 on the way to L.A.), this hidden Phoenix gem is an unexpected eastern oasis deposited amidst the flurry of western civilization.
Protected by the shade of a high-rise apartment building, colorful koi dance beneath the surface of a shallow lake, a canopy of pines, sculpted shrubs, gentle waterfalls, and peaceful pagodas.
Of course, many come to the Valley of the Sun to relax by the pool. But if you prefer a different kind of escape, the garden is an ideal place to stroll in the shade, pause on a weekday, feed the fish, and nourish your soul.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I need more private time. This feels like an odd thing for me to admit, because–at one time–I would have considered myself a strong extrovert.
Now that I’ve been away from my consulting career for more than eight years, I realize I was more of an introvert all along. One who was good at solving problems, facilitating outcomes, and wearing a multitude of hats. I was required to be “on” far more than I wanted.
Finding the magic as a writer has been the result of tunneling in versus extending out. It’s been an exercise in spelunking … getting lost in caves of consciousness … then exploring that space.
This creative cocooning is an activity I love, and one I have become protective of. (Translated, that means I get grumpy when there are too many social demands on my time. I can imagine my husband nodding knowingly as I write this.)
Even so, there have been times over the past two years, when I’ve missed the human connections that many of us took for granted in a pre-pandemic world. For instance, reaching out to engage with readers in person or simply being in the same room with others to experience the impromptu moments of life.
On Friday night, I got a dose of the creative community I craved during the depths of the pandemic. Tom and I attended a Storyline SLAM event at Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix. The theme of the evening was Magic, so each story needed to include that component in one form or another.
The process was pretty loose. Organic might be a better word. Eight people–four before intermission, four after–took turns telling stories on stage in six-minute segments.
When each storyteller finished, five judges (sprinkled in the audience of one hundred) held up mini tote boards with a score. Thirty points were the most possible, because the highest and lowest scores, raised high by the judges, were tossed out.
Driving there, Tom and I knew there was an outside possibility that members of the audience could volunteer to tell their stories in the moment. So, I brought one of my books, An Unobstructed View, in the car–just in case I summoned the courage to get up on stage. The idea intrigued and petrified me.
I’ll cut to the chase. I wrote my name on a slip of paper when we got to the event. I dropped it into a box, where it might be drawn. And it was. As I chugged a glass of pinot noir and squirmed in my seat, I learned I would be number three on stage to tell a story.
When my turn arrived, the anxiety I felt was palpable. Still, I walked to the stage and stood before the mic. I opened my book to page 41 and began reading from a chapter titled The Best Ears of Our Lives. Here’s an excerpt of what I shared that night.
… in October 1998, I became a dog owner again. We found our family dog in an Arlington Heights pet store. A high-pitched bell at the top of the door jingled, signaling our arrival as we pushed through the entrance. Tom and I walked past a wall of cages containing an assortment of critters with doleful eyes tracking our every move. The noisiest of the bunch was a tri-colored basset hound puppy with a white-tipped tail, brown-and-white face, and voluminous black velvet ears. She barked, yelped, and wiggled near the latch of her cage as if to shout, “Look over here. Take me home. You will never find a better dog than me!”… I knew we had turned the page and a dog-eared corner. This tenacious pup had cast a spell on us.
For most of the next decade, Nick, Kirk, Tom, and I would write a chapter together, featuring our shared love for Maggie as the glue that would help us all bond. As Maggie’s body grew, her limbs spread, and her breathing deepened at night, our basset hound further infiltrated our lives. We would never be prepared for the day we’d have to let her go.
The crowd applauded. I smiled, exhaled, walked back to my chair, and sat next to Tom. He kissed me on the cheek. Moments later, my score appeared … 27 out of a possible 30. But the numbers really didn’t matter. It was simply the act of sharing my story and getting an immediate response that fueled happiness and relief.
When the evening ended, an exuberant lady (she told a fun and charismatic story about the magic of motherhood) won the Storyline SLAM event with a perfect score of 30. I finished third out of eight. Not bad for a last-minute decision by an introvert to take the stage.
Most of all, the experience reminded me to live for today in this uncertain world, but also to find the time and space to embrace and remember the magic. It can appear in any form–long velveteen ears on an autumn day or an improbable six minutes on stage in the spring–when we least expect it.
Today, I’m lost in thought about screen-and-stage legend Judy Garland, a film she starred in that sparked my early imagination, a recent experience that renewed my love for live theater, and a song, Get Happy, she made famous.
Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgement day.
Beginning in 1959, and throughout the 60s, it happened only once a year: CBS aired a special TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, the magical MGM film released in 1939.
Like thousands of Baby Boomers across the U.S., my sister Diane and I waited impatiently for the annual ritual. We sat cross-legged, mesmerized in front of our RCA console. We squealed with delight and fear when a ferocious cyclone swept Dorothy into the Kansas sky. In short order, she, Toto (her loyal dog) and their house landed with a thud somewhere over the rainbow.
For those precious hours, Diane and I absorbed and memorized every fanciful song, image and character–the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Munchkins, the Flying Monkeys–Dorothy encountered along the yellow brick road. Though our TV projected black-and-white images only, our imaginations manufactured the scenes in vivid color.
As the years passed, we recited every iconic line of dialogue–“I’ll get you, my pretty … and your little dog, too”–uttered by the Wicked Witch of the West. Whenever she appeared in a puff of smoke, it shook us to the core. But we always knew she would melt in the end, thanks to a handy bucket of water on a ledge and Dorothy’s resourceful decision to grab it in a crucial moment.
Knowing that delicious outcome, and that Dorothy and Toto would ultimately make it back home to Kansas safely, made watching the film one of the happiest and most enduring memories of my childhood.
Looking back, I think it was Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, who captivated me most. Her sense of wonder, innocence, tenacity, good citizenship, pizzazz, and beautiful voice filled the frame. I don’t think there is a more stirring, iconic moment in film than Judy singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Of course, children and adults can watch The Wizard of Oz whenever they want now. But, in the 1960s, the film’s relative inaccessibility, imagination, and message … that it was possible to find happiness and peace “right in my own backyard” … was a shared experience and sense of idealism that no longer exists.
Isn’t it ironic that, in an age when virtually any film or music is available anytime, we are barraged with a mountain of images and problematic news–pandemics, politics, and Putin–that shock our sensibilities and clog our ability to bolster our happiness?
2022 marks the centennial celebration of Judy Garland’s life. (She was born June 10, 1922; died June 22, 1969, at age 47.)
To remember and relive her remarkable film, stage and song legacy–amassed in less than five decades–crooner Michael Feinstein has produced a masterful ninety-minute show, called Get Happy!
On Sunday, March 20, Tom and I were in the audience for Feinstein’s dazzling evening performance and multi-media program at the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. It included renditions of many of Judy’s favorite tunes, along with seldom-seen-or-heard images and stories from her life.
About midway through Feinstein’s stellar performance, he paused to tell a story about Judy Garland in 1941. That year, at age nineteen, she bought her parents (who came from modest means in Grand Rapids, Minnesota) a home.
Judy recorded tapes of herself singing to her family in their home, but for years after her death mysteriously those recordings couldn’t be found. Remarkably, Feinstein had the opportunity to visit the home and discovered them in a hollow wall. He played one of those for us as a black-and-white image of a teenage Judy Garland, posing in a tailored suit, filled the screen above the stage.
The song Judy was singing, I’ll Be Seeing You, brought me to tears as I held Tom’s hand. We were seated on the aisle in row Q. Judy never recorded it professionally, but the tune was one of my mother’s favorites. So much so, that Diane and I chose a version of it to play at Mom’s memorial service in 2013.
As Judy Garland’s bright and soaring voice filled the auditorium Sunday night, I was transported back to the early 1960s and the happiness I felt watching The Wizard of Oz.
Mom was curled up on the couch. Diane and I were glued to the floor in front of our RCA. Together we followed Judy’s voice and steps stride for stride.
We were on our annual adventure somewhere over the rainbow.
There is no better time than St. Patrick’s Day to pay tribute to the Emerald Island.
In late August 2017–just six weeks after I suffered a mild heart attack–Tom and I boarded a flight for Dublin, Ireland.
It was an excursion we had planned months before. But on July 6th (our shared sixtieth birthday) the trip and our future felt very much in doubt as I lie on a gurney in a St. Louis hospital.
Remarkably, my health improved considerably in a month. Doctors in Scottsdale, Arizona–my new hometown–encouraged us to proceed with our plans. The journey to Ireland would help us heal.
Looking back five years, both of us were anxious about traveling abroad, but we also needed to reclaim our joy. As I wrote in An Unobstructed View, Tom and I spent eight days with forty other travelers from around the world. Brian, our capable guide with CIE Tours, led us clockwise around the island.
It’s a bit of a blur now. But in one week’s time we moved from Dublin to Waterford, Killarney, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Galway, the sheepdogs in Sligo, the Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland, and the Titanic Museum in Belfast … before returning to Dublin and riding atop a double-decker bus with the wind racing through my hair.
Along the way, on our farewell dinner with the tour, we enjoyed an evening of Irish songs and music at the Glyde Inn just south of Dundalk.
In the spontaneity of the experience, I was pulled onto the floor to join in a broom dance. For a few fleeting moments, I rediscovered my spark away from the worries of the previous month.
I also spotted a little old Irish lady, singing her heart out across the room. She resembled my Scotch-Irish mother, who never had the opportunity to return to her ancestral home country. Seeing her there was an important step in my healing process.
In 2019, I wrote The Irish Mist. My poem is a tribute to the comfort I felt looking out over the Atlantic Ocean across the vast Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland as the clouds rolled in on August 27, 2017.
I’ll always remember you, rolling in over the gaelic green.
I felt cool comfort knowing the veiled intentions you whispered in my ear wouldn’t be denied.
No matter how much I wanted to gaze beyond the moss and ferns you shrouded, you held me there.
You knew I needed to stand strong above the craggy cliffs of my past.
You knew I needed to feel rooted to the emerald island, thankful for the mystery of my mending heart.
We sat–quietly and obediently–in rows facing the front of the room. Most of the girls wore frilly dresses, bangs, and patent-leather shoes; the boys sported bold-striped shirts, crew cuts, and bright-white Keds.
Our mornings and early afternoons were occupied with simple math, spelling, reading, recess, and cartons of cold milk on lunch trays. The American flag draped over the alphabet border above the blackboard.
Images of George, Abraham, and John–Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy–stood guard. I suspect they were there to ease our minds and protect our American innocence.
If only it were that simple.
I don’t remember feeling fear, when our teacher told us it was time for another drill. We knew the routine and followed instructions.
A voice on the public address system told us when to practice hiding under our desks, when to duck and cover, when to escape to fallout shelters in hallways if a bomb were dropped.
It lasted but a few minutes. We covered our heads and faces until the all-clear signal came from our teacher. We absorbed the fear–the height of the Cold War–without knowing what it was.
This was what we knew in the early 1960s in middle America. We were fortunate these were merely practice drills, false alarms.
I imagine the scenes weren’t much different in schools on the outskirts of Chicago, Cincinnati or Cleveland. At Mesnier School in Affton–ten miles from downtown St. Louis–we aspired to a gleaming symbol. We lived in the shadow of an emerging national monument.
By its completion in 1965, the Gateway Arch would soar, though across the nation the fog of pollution and social issues intensified.
As history would have it, all of the names of St. Louis school children would be stored in a time capsule in the base of the Arch. Mine is among them.
Back in the classroom, between random drills and parent-teacher conferences, we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. We tied our shoes and kept on skipping in a world where rules were prescribed narrowly for girls and boys.
This was the credo for boys: Get good grades in school. Be prepared. Keep your eye on the ball. Run faster. Jump higher. Find a decent job. Don’t be a sissy. Meet and marry a woman. Buy a house. Have kids. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Pass the baton to the next generation.
But what about those of us who are different? Where do we fit into the story? We had to figure that out for ourselves.
The sixties weren’t pretty. Assassinations reigned. The Vietnam War raged. Poverty and racism amplified. People felt trapped, ready to shed the remnants of restrictive gender roles and sexuality, sealed in the repressive 1950s.
But the world is exponentially more complicated now. The latest madman is hellbent on ravaging innocent people in Ukraine. Though love appears in abundance in many circles across all continents, ignorance and hate manifest themselves next door and around the world.
Once again, sixty years later, we find ourselves living in fear of the fallout. We must find ways to duck and cover, to speak the truth while standing as tall and mighty as the Gateway Arch.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to put politics aside, to protect our planet, to uphold individual rights and civil liberties, to teach them about black and white, but also the color and grayness of the world and all its permutations. Pandemic or not, they are watching.
Even if they don’t know it, the youngest members of our society are counting on us to speak the truth, denounce racism and hate, celebrate gay and straight lives, and to teach them that every generation has a responsibility to remember and honor the seminal moments in history, and–hopefully–carry the best of humanity forward.