Tag: Nature

My Slargando World

BirdsFlowers_April2019 004 (1000x570)

April ushers in a slower pace in Arizona. Following the departure of their favorite major league baseball teams that train in the Valley of the Sun, most snowbirds have already packed their bags and flown back to their primary homes. Now, as ninety-plus temperatures descend upon us, there’s more room to dine in restaurants. Fewer scooters to dodge on Scottsdale streets.

To borrow the Italian musical term slargando (a word I learned last night as my husband Tom and I played a rousing game of Balderdash with friends Carolyn and John from Alaska and Adele and Len from New York), I feel the onset of a gradually slowing tempo … a widening sense of time and space on the threshold that coincides with see-you-again-in-the-fall-or-winter conversations we’ll have as our friends depart next week.

All four of them are kind and interesting people we didn’t know five years ago. Now they are friends who walk and laugh beside us. Crave the next movie night in our cozy condo. Cringe with us at breaking news. Share our home for wine and pasta dinners. Treat us to trips on boats, a ready supply of salmon spread, and stories of their future plans.

In other words, they are our sixties comrades in our condo community. Friends who are just as comfortable leading the charge up a trail to the Desert Botanical Garden, following us into a different circle for one of my choral concerts, tagging along for Blarney Bingo on St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Phoenix, or picnicking at a table under a Palo Verde tree at a local hangout in Tempe.

Needless to say, Tom and I are grateful for their friendship and the moments we share. Though we will miss seeing our part-time neighbors for the next several months, Tom and I will have each other and our creative aspirations to keep us busy through spring and summer. And, despite the heat, the coos of mourning doves nearby and the enchanting calls from mockingbirds and desert wrens outside our backdoor will keep us company.

Through it all, I’ll be content to walk and exercise in the morning with my husband, swim laps to keep my heart strong, and write my stories in my slargando world.

 

 

A Sense of Belonging … No Foolin’

CactusBloomingTop.jpg

It’s April Fools’ Day. But there’s nothing foolish about recognizing the sense of belonging we all need. In fact, I think the safety and support of a circle of friends and a welcoming community are essential for us to bloom in a world of controversy and thorny problems.

All of this crossed my mind Sunday. I had just left the stage with my gay friends in the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We were one of several LGBTQA choral and instrumental groups that performed at the We Are One concert. It was a rousing afternoon of uplifting music at the beautiful new Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix. I felt warm and loved there performing in front of an appreciative audience. To be clear, it wasn’t just the applause. It was because I knew I belonged singing on stage with sixty new friends.

I know I’m fortunate. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced the love and support of a circle of friends. In fact, I’ve felt a sense of belonging in many aspects of my life with my husband, my sons, my extended family, my neighbors in Arizona … and certainly with friends, neighbors and colleagues in the Chicago area before moving to Arizona almost two years ago.

But if you are different or disadvantaged in any way, you know this to be true: a loving community is paramount. Strangely–even in 2019–LGBTQA folks are rejected for who they are by their immediate family members. So, they are left to cobble together the families of their own choosing. This is especially troubling at a time when our own government officials seem determined to roll back rights and protections for American citizens in many circles.

So last night, after the We Are One concert, I needed to share the love I feel for my new circle of friends. I sent them a message. I told them how proud I am to sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. I told them how important they are to my husband and me. I told them that because of the music we sing and the friendships I’m making with all of them, I’m feeling their love and developing my own sense of belonging again.

To be honest, in 2017 when I said goodbye to another close group of friends at the Windy City Gay Chorus in Chicago–people I loved and performed with for seven years–I wasn’t sure I’d find that sort of community connection a second time. Especially after surviving a heart attack on the way west.

But I’ve found it again. I feel the love in Arizona. In my new home town. No foolin’.

 

 

 

 

 

Joy … and Sadness

Comfort8_040915

A real day in a real life is comprised of the crisscrossing realities of joy and sadness. Strung together like a tangled knot of Christmas lights, they are the twinkling highs we crave blended with the burned-out bulbs we’d prefer to avoid.

Today, in the span of the same hour, I found myself composing an enthusiastic message to one friend in Arizona, who’s celebrating her sixtieth birthday, while offering condolences to an acquaintance in Illinois. He is my oldest son’s boyhood friend who had just lost his mother (also in her sixties) to cancer.

The combination of these two events gave me pause to consider how difficult it is to balance the highs and lows of life. Many of us spend a good deal of time contemplating tomorrow–saving for a college education, plotting for the perfect job, scrimping to buy a comfortable home, orchestrating the trip of a lifetime, preparing for a secure retirement. Yet, somewhere–way back in the recesses of our psyches–we know the day will come when the loss we experience will dash all of our plans. It will predominate everything else in our lives. Our grief will be all that matters.

So, on this day–March 22, 2019–I wish Kathy a spectacular sixtieth birthday in the Valley of the Sun. And, for Ryan, I send my love and deepest sympathy across the miles as he reconciles the joy of his mother’s kind and generous life with the sadness of her passing.

 

 

Outside My Backdoor

ArizonaBackdoor_031817 004 (1000x565)

I love being a memoir writer. Telling meaningful true stories about the past can often provide clues and trends about life in the future.

But there’s a mental trap in all of it. As I hone my craft, I can get lost in a time warp. If I’m not careful, I miss what’s happening around me today. I need to be better at noticing the people, the moments, the images, and the sounds of life in the present. What it feels like to live life in March 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Maybe you’re like me. In a given twenty-four-hour period, my emotions can move from frightful to beautiful and back again, depending on the news cycle. And, though I am a critical thinker and active member of American society, I often resolve that I can make the greatest difference by focusing on the small things I can do to help my family, my friends, my neighbors, my community.

For instance, encouraging my husband to tell his story and find his niche in the Phoenix film community … serving as a sounding board and coach for my sons as they pursue their careers … cheering on a friend from afar as she begins a new life in a warmer place … picking up an elderly neighbor who’s fallen and needs help hanging his hummingbird feeder … and singing on stage with sixty other gay men to remind the world that love is love and we are one.

Today–on March 18, 2019–I decided to turn off the news for a while and turn up the volume on the real life around me. I took a long walk and worked out at the gym to keep my heart strong. I enjoyed lunch with my husband at home. I dusted off my digital camera and snapped a few photos of the cacti and pink blooms of the ice plant on our patio. And, as I write this sentence, a desert wren is chirping its heart out at the top of a palm tree on a breezy-eighty-two-degree-blue-sky day in the Valley of the Sun.

Perhaps the bird is sending me a message. That life is short. That I’d better embrace now. That beauty is right outside my backdoor.

 

 

He Wrote Every Day for Fifty-Two Years

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

Long before there were bloggers or social media mavens, there was S.R. Ferrell. He was my maternal grandfather, born March 9, 1901, in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Sturdy and steady, S.R. (he preferred the initials to his given name of Sherrell Richardson) wrote brief, daily observations in his diary for fifty-two consecutive years, until his death on April 17, 1985.

Needless to say, S.R. was a tenacious worker. At age forty-four when he bought his Huntersville, North Carolina farm–the place he loved most–it felt to him as if life had just begun. But, truth be told, in the first half of his life he’d already toiled as a WWI soldier, photographer, grocery clerk, furniture factory hand, and hosiery mill employee.

Imagine the personal commitment required to reach for your diary at the end of every day for more than half a century. To jot down something about the day after tending to your livestock and crops in extreme weather conditions. To do it over and over again.

In 2015, as I was writing From Fertile Ground, my three-generation memoir that weaves together recollections from my grandfather, my mother, and my own life, I sequestered myself and read every page of S.R.’s diary entries.

Much of his writing focuses on his observations about the weather, his output at the hosiery mill, the condition of his farm, and special moments with family members and neighbors. In S.R.’s world, most important occurrences happened within his physical reach or just down the road. Yet, on occasion, there is a reminder in his diary of the larger community in which he lived and the dramatic, history-defining moments he witnessed. For instance, these were his words on Sunday, November 24, 1963:

Lee Oswald, the man they were holding for the shooting of President Kennedy, was shot today in the basement of the Dallas, Texas jail … Jimmy and Steve came over for a few minutes … Fair. Sunny. Cooler … We watched the procession moving President Kennedy’s body from the White House to U.S. Capitol Building … 41 degree low. 56 degree high.

This week, as I remember S.R. and celebrate his 118th birthday, I’m grateful for the written legacy he left behind. Thirty years after his death, his stories helped me ignite my artistic sensibilities, rediscover my southern roots, and find my path as an author.

Yet, I find myself longing for the stoic farmer to pick up his pen one more time. To tell me about the weather. To remind me of those cherished days on his beloved farm, where he raised cantaloupes, cattle and corn. Where I spent summers with him and my tender-hearted grandmother a lifetime ago … milking cows, gathering eggs from the hen house, cradling kittens and puppies, and chasing peacocks with the hope of bringing a colorful tail feather back to the Midwest as a souvenir of our adventure.

The best I can do is to gaze out my window at a pink, speckled 5 x 7-inch piece of granite stone from his farm. I’ve carried it with me throughout my life … from North Carolina to Missouri to Illinois to Arizona … and now the rock rests beneath a beautiful red bougainvillea in the Valley of the Sun.

 

 

Thank You, Woodrow Wilson

GrandCanyon_081618 019 (1000x476)

With a stroke of his pen one hundred years ago, president Woodrow Wilson preserved a natural wonder. He signed a bill on February 26, 1919, making the Grand Canyon the fourteenth member of the national park system.

Evidently, it was a quiet resolution. According to an article in last Sunday’s Arizona Republic, there was barely a mention in the press at the time.  But this week we celebrate the wisdom of Wilson’s act. He ensured that an unfettered geological phenomenon be kept as it should be … unfettered for the uninitiated and the unborn.

No matter how many technological advancements we may be grateful for today, few things can compare with the tear-inducing joy of approaching the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time and marveling at its expansive beauty. It’s a moment I’ll always treasure.

Without question, we’d be lost without the unbridled, magnificent beauty of our national parks. Especially the Grand Canyon. It’s our vast wonder of wonders, protected for all the world to see. Let’s keep it that way for future generations to enjoy.

Thank you, Woodrow Wilson.

Tucson through the Looking Glass

Tucson1_021619

It was July 1989. I was a PR guy. Visiting Tucson, Arizona on business for a travel agency conference. Working long hours at the chic Westin LaPaloma Resort in the Santa Catalina Mountains. Finalizing speeches and media interviews on behalf of Covia, a United Airlines subsidiary that managed the Apollo computer reservation system.

I remember feeling trapped behind glass in the summer heat. Unresolved about my life and orientation. At that moment, I had little time to explore my personal landscape or the vast mountainous terrain outside the restaurant window. The only positive glimmer was the exuberance I felt seeing a road runner by the pool one afternoon during a pause in my busy schedule.

Over the weekend, I was back at the Westin LaPaloma Resort. This time the circumstances were different. It was winter. I was there for pleasure. Visiting the same terrain as an Arizona resident. With my husband and fifty or so new friends, my gay pals with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We performed at a GALA leadership symposium and received a standing ovation.

Before our performance, my husband and I took the opportunity to dine quietly at one of the resort restaurants. I peered through the glass at the gorgeous mountains.

Yes, thirty years have passed … and my how the terrain has changed.

I’ve Only Just Begun

Five Years Later_012519 004.JPG

I realize the title of this post sounds a little hokey and an awful lot like a lyric from a 1970s Carpenters song. (Please tell me you remember who Karen Carpenter was!) But I prefer to imagine that I, a generally healthy sixty-one-year-old male who visits his cardiologist every six months, will channel my energies into creative writing projects that will stimulate my intellect rather than stewing over my advancing age. That is beyond my control.

I adopted this philosophy five years ago this week. That’s when I walked out the door of my Aon office in Chicago and began a new chapter. As background, up until that moment I really didn’t feel I was living the artistic life I was meant to live. If anything, in late January 2014, I was numb from my mother’s death a year before and the escalating demands of navigating thirty-four years in the communication consulting, PR and advertising worlds.

After months of soul-searching and years of smart saving, I left the familiar unfulfilling days behind. I needed time to heal. I needed time to explore life on my terms. At age fifty-six, I grabbed my digital camera and began to capture images of darting dragonflies and picturesque prairie landscapes. I recorded random inspirations in my journal as I rambled along. The fog began to lift and my energy returned. Gradually, I discovered my way out in Illinois. As I wrote about the grief of losing my mother and revisiting my southern roots in From Fertile Ground, it prompted new possibilities. It promised a more poetic life.

What else have I learned in the past five years? After surviving a mild heart attack in 2017, I know I am fortunate to be alive. My husband and I lead a creative, warm life. We have a quieter existence in Arizona far away from the hustle and brutal cold of Chicago’s late January days.

Even with the physical distance from my Chicago life, I’m thankful for friends there, who shared their gifts and inspired me along the way to be true to my creative self. Like my friend Dina. She and I were close colleagues at Aon. Five years ago, on my last day of corporate life, she gave me this artful-and-personal handmade gift: a mirrored collage for me to reflect on the fun-and-unforgettable aspects of my Chicago work life. I keep Dina’s gift on my desk in Arizona, because it captures where I’ve been and who I am: a big picture guy, who cares about his husband, good friends, art, music, theatre, the best books, and cuddly animals.

Yes, I lead a happier and more fulfilling life in the desert. Somehow I’ve written and published three books and survived a health scare. But it still feels like I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities of this semi-retired, creative life.

When I look at Dina’s mirrored gift, it feels like I’ve only just begun.

 

 

 

Six Years Have Passed, but the Poppies Still Bloom

poppies_011419 003

In mid-January 2013, I was marking time. I had just returned to my consulting job in Chicago after a two-month leave of absence to spend time with Helen Johnson. She was my wise, but ailing, mother. Somehow Helen had dodged and surpassed the prognostications of her doctors. She was clinging to life in hospice, enduring frequent breathing treatments to relieve her congestive heart failure, channeling the will and resiliency that had sustained her for more than eighty-nine years.

A few weeks later, everything changed. I got the dreaded call. My mother’s life ended peacefully in the wee hours of January 26, 2013. Soon after, a grief-induced fog rolled in and consumed me. Fortunately, I found the strength to write about it. My new life as an author began to take root. I never imagined the vacuum left by my mother’s existence would become the catalyst and subject matter for my first book, From Fertile Ground.

Six years have passed. Today I’m thankful I can remember my mother freely without the specter of pain. Helen Johnson had a passion for nature and supporting aspiring artists. She also believed in second chances. In the 1970s, Mom insisted I come with her to annual art shows at Menard state prison in southern Illinois. That’s where some of the more talented inmates presented and sold their work. On one of those excursions, she bought this painting.

For nearly the next three decades, it hung in our living room in suburban St. Louis. Then it traveled with Mom to her new home in Chicago’s western suburbs, where she spent the last nine years of her life. After Mom died, I kept the painting. When my husband and I moved to Arizona in 2017, we brought it with us.

In a weak moment this week, as the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death drew closer, I considered giving it away because we have less space now. But then I had a change of heart. With my husband’s encouragement, I realized the painting will never mean as much to anyone else. We found the right spot to display it in our condo kitchen.

This vivid splash of blooming poppies on a hillside, painted by an artist named McCall in 1975, will always represent my mother’s best qualities. As long as I’m alive, I hope the memories of her goodness never fade.

 

A New Year, A New Day to Feed the Ducks

FeedingBirds2_010119

My husband and I have a New Year’s Day tradition in Arizona. Every year on January 1 we hike to a nearby park to feed crusts of old year bread to new year birds. We began doing this four or five years ago when we were birds ourselves — snowbirds, that is — and found we had fallen in love with the darling ducks at a little oasis surrounded by buttes and palm trees.

Today, on a frosty Arizona morning, we renewed our ritual. We tossed tufts of multi-grain goodness into the water. The ducks dove in and paddled up to gobble up the bread. A family with two pre-teen children watched with delight from the edge of the water. Their expressions told me they were fascinated with our interaction with the ducks. I smiled and passed them two slices of bread so they could join in our moment with the ducks.

What better way to begin 2019. Reaching out to nature. Connecting with strangers. Celebrating the start of another year in a world of possibilities.