This is my domain, though at times I barely recognize the land that met the sky on the wings of my ancestors. Now it is divided into parcels and corridors of parched earth and concrete that channel swirling desert winds.
I crave missing monsoon rains. I grieve for the fallen in war and peace. I pause to observe the pain, pestilence, and progress. I wince over apathy and shortsightedness. I am blind to none of it.
Call me a scavenger or opportunist if you will. I am imperfect like you. I am a survivor, a symbol of what is right and wrong. I was nearly gone and forgotten. Now I am standing guard over the mystery and mayhem that is my home.
It’s a big job, keeping the trees pruned in our complex. Yes, it’s like me to prune the lemon tree outside our front door and write a book of essays set against the beauty and warmth of this Sonoran Desert life.
But trimming palms exists in another stratosphere in the hall of fame of pruning and gardening. You’ll never find me shimmying up the trunk of a palm (think Gilligan’s Island) to sculpt them to look like this. It requires experts, like the crew that descended upon us yesterday. Even so, I admire the tidy end result and occupy myself by photographing the uplifting outcome and telling a story about it.
As the first holiday weekend of summer approaches, the manicured appearance of these Polynesian Paradise palms reminds me that I live in a relatively carefree resort community. I’m not stranded (perpetually) on a unchartered island like Gilligan, the Skipper, Mr. and Mrs. Howell, Ginger, the Professor and Mary Ann were in the 1960s, but I am far removed from the demanding midwestern life I left behind.
I’m grateful for this slower pace and quieter life. As summer approaches, I wish you the same. We all need time to reflect and rejuvenate our spirits, time to get lost in a silly old sitcom, time to read a good book, time to pour a cool drink, time to relax and indulge ourselves under a favorite tree.
Life is brimming with duality: birth and death; joy and sorrow; old and new; calmness and turbulence.
In my nearly sixty-four years, I’ve learned we need both the void of darkness and the energy of light–the yin and the yang of contrary forces–to breathe new meaning into our human and fragile existence.
In the confines of spring 2021, both ends of life’s emotional spectrum have crossed my path. First came the sudden death of Gary, an elderly neighbor. He passed in front of our condo, in my arms on April 2.
The calendar told me it was Good Friday, but I felt only sadness and profound disbelief that day. It didn’t matter that Gary was eighty-six years old and declining rapidly. Exits are seldom easy. I prefer new beginnings.
Six weeks later, I got one. Grief was counterbalanced by joy. Something new and happy happened on Tuesday, May 18, to compensate for Good Friday’s trauma.
The wave of anticipation began a few days before when our friend Brian called Tom to enlist our help. He asked us to join him and girlfriend Bernadette at the Desert Botanical Garden.
But there was a twist … something new waiting beyond the something old of simply sharing coffee and stories with our thirty-something friends. Brian wanted us to capture his surprise marriage proposal to Bernadette on camera.
Tuesday morning came. We met at the garden entrance at 10 o’clock as planned. After thirty minutes of light conversation at a shaded table on Ullman Terrace near a gathering of quail, the four of us walked down a garden path.
Brian and Bernadette walked a few steps ahead. He paused, lowered to one knee, and popped the question under the pink blossoms of an ironwood tree.
From behind her neon-green-framed sunglasses, Bernadette beamed and said “yes”. She slid the ring on her finger and they embraced.
Bernadette reached out to hold her future husband and clutch his curly locks. All the while, surrounded by succulents and saguaro cacti, Tom and I snapped photos from six feet away. Boundless joy filled the air.
After ten minutes passed, we walked toward the garden exit together. Tom and I told Bernadette and Brian we wanted to give them some private time in the beauty of the Sonoran Desert landscape.
Before we departed, the four of us spotted a colorful lizard. As Brian’s and Bernadette’s hearts raced– and Tom and I recounted our gratitude for simply being there–the foot-long reptile sat motionless on a rock.
I want to believe it was nature’s way of saying, “Be still with this moment. Let it last a while in the quiet of the garden.”
Like this image, life has been more than a little blurry for the past fifteen months. I have tried to keep smiling, but the outrageous number of deaths due to COVID-19 (more than 580,000 in the United States at this point), endless Zoom interactions, mind-numbing-worry-filled hours, and angst-ridden social and political moments have made it difficult at times.
Add in the daily masked encounters in contact-free zones to protect ourselves. There have been too many of those to enumerate, but through 2020 and the first four months of 2021 I never questioned the need to wear a face covering, though it certainly created an emotional barrier to contend with.
What would you have said if I told you this on January 20, 2021, (the day Joe Biden took the presidential oath of office)?
“By the middle of May more than 47 percent of Americans will have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 37 percent of all Americans (more than 120 million including my husband and me) will be fully vaccinated. Oh, and CDC masking guidelines will be substantially relaxed as a result of the greater numbers of protected citizens. For instance, if you live in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I do, you will be free to exercise in a community gym without wearing a mask on May 15.”
You probably would have responded like this:
“You’re crazy, Johnson!! Stop building my hopes and spreading unrealistic half-glass-full-but-dreamy conspiracy theories.”
But I’m not crazy. Think about what we have accomplished in less than four months as a nation. Where would we be without the vaccines, a compassionate and hard-working president, and science? Nowhere.
I realize there is a sizable chunk of Americans who will never get vaccinated, and as a result we will likely not reach herd immunity. If you are an anti-vaxer, it is your choice not to get the shots, just as it was mine to consent to receive the inoculations.
However, I see the “no vaccines for me” choice as a short-sighted and selfish one. I view the approved, no-charge COVID-19 vaccines as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. (If you’ve played Monopoly, you get my drift.)
Without the vaccines (two doses of the Pfizer vaccine for me) I would have felt forever afraid and vulnerable. I would have continued to be worried about my well-being, not to mention paranoid about spreading the virus to others. All of us would be going nowhere … figuratively and literally.
Now, with the vaccine coursing through my veins, I am happier, freer, and less afraid than I’ve been in fifteen months. I can plan a trip with my husband to visit friends in Montana this summer, sing again unmasked in the same space with my friends in the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus, and work out at Club SAR, the community gym I frequent, without wearing a covering over my face. None of that would have happened without the amazing science of epidemiology and vaccines.
Best of all, blurry or not, with the boosting benefit of two shots in my right arm and some mild discomfort for a few days, I get to see the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances, and mingle with them again. That’s something I have missed dearly.
As Scottsdale temperatures rise each May, crowds disperse. Locals breathe more easily, sip hazelnut coffee under eaves, and swim morning laps before triple digits roll in on a red hot Arizona day.
If you prefer a circus of disconnected distractions, stand by. Watch a tag team of fertile mourning doves feed their young. Wince as construction workers jackhammer in the name of progress over the western wall. Chuckle as a wily neighborhood cat scatters a chorus of squawking crows under a tangelo tree.
For today’s headliner, none of these sideshow performances matter. From her inconspicuous back patio stage, one determined desert rose enters the center ring. She dazzles passersby with her first double red bloom of the season.
It’s near the end of Mother’s Day 2021, but I couldn’t let this day pass without paying tribute to Helen Johnson, my resilient mother. Today, as I puttered in the garden–a universal place she loved–and planted impatiens in a shady spot under the eaves of my Scottsdale home, I channeled memories of her. Here’s a little story about the two of us.
Mom was 74 and I was 40 on Mother’s Day 1998. This is one of my favorite photos of us, standing outside her south suburban St. Louis home that day twenty-three years ago. It captures the essence of the lifelong bond and love between us. As her edges softened in her seventies and eighties and my appreciation for her vulnerabilities, strengths, and wisdom grew in my forties and fifties, our relationship deepened.
What I’ve learned since her death in 2013 (and my father’s in 1993) is that our relationships with our parents don’t end when they die. They evolve. We carry bittersweet and tender memories of them with us everywhere (in my case from North Carolina and Missouri to Illinois and Arizona).
I no longer think of my mother every day, but her gifts are part of the fabric of my life in the Sonoran Desert (a place she never visited) in a far less obvious way than they were back in St. Louis in 1998. For that reason, she appears in all four of my books. Sometimes as true reflections of the person she was; other times in fictional flights of fancy.
As long as I’m around, I will carry with me her love of gardening, impatience with ineptitude, kindness for neighbors, thirst for knowledge, respect for the written word, and commitment to family. In good times and bad, I am forever grateful for the legacy of love my mother left me and the path she provided to follow with my two sons.
Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, who work each day to make a positive difference in the lives of their children.
I began this blogging odyssey three years ago today by publishing my list of memoir writing tips. I had no grand plans or notions of what this would become, who I might meet in the blogosphere, or how frequently I would post. (This is #242. That’s more than eighty posts a year since May 4, 2018.) I simply wanted to exercise my voice, promote my books, and share observations about my new life in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.
But this experience has turned into much more than a lengthy chronicle of disparate topics. It has become a public place for me to examine the beauty of nature, the geographic grandeur and social diversity of the Grand Canyon State, the importance of family and community, the realities of aging and grief, the fright and implications of a global pandemic, the humor and irony of everyday occurrences, and the creative possibilities of a literary life.
Some of you have followed this space for multiple years, left frequent and encouraging comments, and even read a few of my books. Others have joined this journey recently. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, I am grateful for the time you have devoted to my writing and connections we’ve made. Thank you. This rose is for you.
There have been days since February–especially after completing my latest book–when I have realized my brain needed a rest. Given the energy and time commitment required, I wondered if this blog had run its course. However, today as I write this, I can’t imagine living without this forum. It is a strand of my life that keeps my vital and relevant.
Composing and sharing stories from my laptop–and peppering them with images and poetry from time to time too–is an important part of my identity. It is my passion. I need this authentic (though remote) social connection. I want to continue to be a part of the dialogue. Most important, I want to call attention to the simple joys of living and the healing aspects of nature, which often are overlooked.
Going forward, I don’t know how often I will post. But, as in the past, I will speak my mind, test story ideas, pay tribute to a rare person or defining moment, dabble in short fiction (which I began to do in I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree), and explore the implications of everything from a personal joy to a national sorrow.
I hope you’ll continue with me on this journey and comment when the mood strikes … no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.
More than a shameless ripoff of the Tennessee Williams play and the ensuing 1958 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this is a story about our community cat and the Sonoran Desert heat. Both are staring down at us on May 1.
Early this morning, Tom and I spotted Poly on our neighbor’s roof. (Poly is the name I’ve given the bright-eyed feline that has made our enclave her home; we aren’t sure who she belongs to, but she is everywhere in our retro Polynesian Paradise condo complex).
In pursuit of Saturday’s breakfast, persistent Poly was stalking a mourning dove and her baby nesting safely (they thought) under the eaves. Tom’s response was to worry about the well-being of the birds. Mine was to grab my digital camera and to stumble outside in my robe to document the moment.
Eventually, Poly slinked away without a catch. She pattered across the roof to find mischief elsewhere, perhaps on a back patio somewhere down the row. We likely won’t see her for a few days. That’s her pattern, at least. Appear. Disappear. Resurface. At dusk later this week, I expect she will reemerge and patrol the sidewalk in search of an evening snack.
The dry heat is more constant, less whimsical than Poly. Once it appears in early May (we expect a high of ninety-eight degrees in Scottsdale today), we know triple digits aren’t far away. But Tom and I have learned to adapt to the “oven” that is the Sonoran Desert from May through September. In a strange way, it’s become a familiar, returning friend.
In the Phoenix area, early morning and late evening walks or swims are the solution in the summer months … along with a few strategically planned escapes into the cooling pines of northern Arizona. This June we expect to venture even farther north to spend a few days with friends in Bozeman, Montana.
After a year of relative hibernation, I expect driving on the open roads and discovering new vistas in Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Montana will feel like a real adventure. It will certainly be welcome relief after the fright and disorientation of a pandemic year.
But even if we were forced to stay put another year and tough it out indoors away from the midday sun, the summer months are relatively peaceful in Scottsdale, because visitors leave to avoid the heat. For that reason, I give them high marks. I look forward to the quiet, to more time to reflect and write, and to hearing the potential pitter-patter of Poly’s cat paws pacing down our scorching sidewalk or across our hot (not tin) roof.
I can’t reconcile the beauty of the desert rose outside my backdoor with the ugliness of a black man’s murder in Minneapolis. Except I know the rose is a natural creation that thrives on heat and sun, while the killing is the latest manifestation of man-made hate and ignorance.
I can’t justify one-hundred-thousand deaths perpetuated by a virulent virus in less than six months in a complicated country. Except I know the virus is a natural creation with a cycle of its own, while the escalating numbers are evidence of lies and disarray in an ill-equipped nation.
I can’t imagine another month or two or three or more of disorientation and destruction. Except I know the mockingbird will forever sing atop a palm in the peak of the day, while an uncertain world continues to turn come what may.
There was no celebration. No ribbon cutting. No marching band. No drum roll. No crescendo. No crashing cymbals as the glass doors parted magically and Tom and I swiped our membership tags under the watchful electronic eye at the entrance to Club SAR.
Yet, in the scheme of restoring sanity, at 11:45 a.m. on the Tuesday after Memorial Day I felt the symbolic hug of a good friend when I turned the corner and spotted a few familiar faces and free weights.
Smiling like a miscast Lone Ranger through the discomfort of his black bandana and makeshift mask, manager Jonathan greeted us from ten-plus feet away.
“Best day ever,” he proclaimed as we scanned the newly configured space.
It was a tongue-in-cheek phrase he had uttered previously throughout 2019 and early in 2020 every time we walked through the door. Every time we exchanged pleasantries before climbing aboard our favorite life-affirming machines in our past lives.
But on this day in late May it really did feel like the best day ever for two sixty-two-year-old men, who had cobbled together an at-home gym in mid-March (a basketball and ten-and-fifteen-pound hand weights to keep hearts and joints strong in the face of an impending pandemic).
The best day ever to take a giant step away from our predominantly stay-at-home lives. The best day ever to enter a newly configured world of plexi-glass partitions, spaced-out treadmills, scattered stationary bikes and strategically-located sanitizing stations.
It didn’t take long for muscle memory to take hold in a room sprinkled with souls intent upon forestalling the gym reaper. Forty-five minutes later … past trusty treadmill steps, a small stream of light weights, and elliptical exclamation point … we said our goodbyes, drained our water bottles to quench our thirst, and stepped toward our Sonata.
Certainly one thing is true. On this Tuesday–re-opening day at our community gym–a smattering of Scottsdale survivors recaptured a strand of their pre-COVID-19 lives … ever grateful for a few moments of gymbolic bliss.