Blooming on Earth’s exquisite day,
toying with Time’s prickly odds,
standing by Friday’s sandy path,
thriving in April’s blazing sun.
Blooming on Earth’s exquisite day,
toying with Time’s prickly odds,
standing by Friday’s sandy path,
thriving in April’s blazing sun.
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.
Kirk and I talked this morning. Every few weeks–usually on Sunday mornings–we connect via phone.
My thirty-three-year-old son is a kind counselor, who lives in Chicago. He lives a full, demanding life. He has navigated the Covid years on his own. I continue to do my best to bolster him from afar.
I always look forward to our conversations. Kirk tells me what’s happening in his world. I tell him what’s happening in mine. He’s planning a trip to Portugal at the end of March with a friend. The trip has been postponed twice due to the global pandemic. We both hope the third time is the charm.
Kirk is the adventurer in our family. He volunteered with the Peace Corps–taught English to children in Vanuatu on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific–in 2014 and 2015. He hasn’t traveled abroad since then due to Covid and career demands.
I admire Kirk’s sense of wonder. He told me he’s missed the opportunity to explore new worlds; to get lost in unfamiliar cultures. I could hear the loss in his voice.
While news of the war in Ukraine rages on, and we global citizens are catapulted into the uncertainty of another international drama, I think it’s likely that many will deny or try to forget the pain of the past two years. But we can’t and we shouldn’t.
At the very least, each of us must have a personal reckoning to account for the pain, anxiety, disruption, and multitude of losses. This is something I’ve contemplated for a while. This weekend it has surfaced more clearly.
During my conversation with Kirk, I recounted my Saturday with Tom. I told him I sang with my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus pals at the Melrose Street Fair. It’s a lively community event in Phoenix that has gone missing for two years–for obvious reasons.
As I stood on the stage yesterday on a partly sunny and breezy morning–with Tom and a group of our close friends watching and listening–the last two years came flooding back.
Why? Because our chorus performed at the same event two years ago. It was right before the world stopped spinning and we all retreated. I will always remember the pain of that. None of us knew the magnitude and length of the tidal wave of fear and uncertainty that was coming. Somehow, we endured.
Yesterday’s moment was one to embrace and celebrate. Like a long, lost friend missing in action, the world felt suddenly alive as we sang. I wasn’t sure when or if I would feel that free again. But I did.
As I retold this story to Kirk on the phone, my tears appeared out of nowhere. The full emotion of Saturday’s reawakening arrived on Sunday morning with my younger son listening attentively seventeen hundred miles away.
Though it wasn’t in person, I am thankful that Kirk and I had a few moments of reckoning together. Like all of us who have lived through the darkness, we have earned the time and space to reflect and process all of the madness.
I hope my son is able to re-ignite his passion for travel in Portugal and find a little solace … maybe even realize a dream in an unfamiliar place in late March.
Ironic or not, one of the songs our chorus sang yesterday was Come Alive from The Greatest Showman. Let the lyrics wash over you and rekindle your best instincts. We have all earned the reckoning.
And the world becomes a fantasy, and you’re more than you could ever be,
’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.
And you know you can’t go back again to the world that you were livin’ in,
’cause you’re dreamin’ with your eyes wide open.
So come alive!
In addition to writing four memoirs, I’ve been blogging for nearly four years. A few of you have joined me for every twist and turn. I feel humbled by your interest and loyalty.
In my first post (May 4, 2018), I shared ten tips for writing a meaningful memoir. I believed then (as I do today), that each of us has at least one story to tell. If you are an aspiring writer, who is searching for a little inspiration, you may find these tips helpful.
#4 on the list is especially important if you are looking to engage readers, because feelings–fear, disappointment, grief, joy, excitement, anticipation, etc.–are universal:
Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.
Often when I sit down to write a new blogpost–and my fingertips touch the keyboard of my laptop–I’m uncertain what I want to write. But from the beginning of this odyssey, I’ve vowed to follow my own advice to tell and show you what I feel about personal and global issues.
That has included the emotions connected to creating an authentic life as a gay man and father of two sons; recovering from a heart attack; building a new life in the Sonoran Desert with my husband; aging in a predominately youth-focused society; surviving a global pandemic; and simply observing the healing properties of animals and nature.
Even in our uncertain American society–still hamstrung politically and dealing with the ravaging effects of COVID-19–I feel fortunate to have a safe home, good health, enough food to eat, and a community of family and friends nearby.
However, I also feel a strange mix of anger, anxiety, and sadness. I attribute that to the frightening stories and images of what’s happening in Ukraine.
I won’t pretend to understand the politics of it but can imagine the tremendous pain that is occurring as Russian troops invade and thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians are threatened.
The deceptions and power-hungry antics of certain world leaders–rooted in lies and insatiable egos–are unacceptable to me. So is the growing level of American ignorance and intolerance for the truth of what history and provocative literature can teach us.
Yet we have too many “adults” in communities clamoring for the removal of books, which might help teach our children to become critical thinkers. On that note, what I feel today is the excruciating pain of what our world has become.
Rest assured, I will continue to write and voice my concerns, but I feel it’s best if I set aside my laptop for the moment. Here in the Valley of the Sun, I’m going to lace up my sneakers on a gorgeous Friday afternoon and take a hike to Papago Park.
I’m certain the sun is shining there, and the saguaro cacti are standing tall.
It’s one of those days when my stream of consciousness is running in many directions. That has prompted this post about everything (or nothing depending on your point of view).
I call it January musings, because that’s the best thematic thread I can find in this ball of yarn and semi-related thoughts.
Morning, noon and night the fabric of our winding threads becomes a tapestry. That’s the opening lyrical line from Mighty Mosaic, one of four pieces I wrote for the March 12 Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus concert.
The song is an LGBTQA anthem of sorts to capture the complicated–and often triumphant–journeys we take to discover who we are and what we believe.
Hearing my lyrics come to life in a room of familiar voices during Tuesday night’s rehearsal brought me personal joy in a month previously laced with grief.
I bristle whenever I hear film directors, writers or musicians say in an interview that they don’t ever step back to watch their films, read their books, or listen to their music.
I’ll admit it. I’m a writer, who learns by retracing literary steps. I find myself revisiting themes in my writing all the time (family, love, loss, the beauty of nature, the serendipity of life) or frequently pulling one of my books off the shelf and re-reading certain passages.
Why? Because it keeps the process of telling a particular story fresh in my mind. Each of my four books is a child I have loved and guided from infancy to adulthood. They will live on the page long after I’m gone, even if nobody reads them.
Revisiting my stories also allows me to remember the richness of life: the hows … how far I’ve traveled, how far I still have to go, how much the world has changed, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, how fortunate I am to love and be loved.
The ninth anniversary of my mother’s passing is January 26. Earlier this week, I looked skyward and spotted a full moon. It transported me back to a frigid January morning right after I said goodbye to her–an indelible Illinois moment in 2013–when Tom and I sat with my sister and brother-in-law at a suburban McDonald’s (the only place open for coffee at 5 a.m.) to feel the warmth and close comfort of an enormous full moon illuminating the horizon and the snow-packed streets.
The grief I felt that morning is far less present now. But the welcome sight of a full moon will forever remind me of the journey after Helen Johnson’s passing, her wisdom and undaunted spirit, and the growth that followed. All of it inspired me to chart a new trajectory, write From Fertile Ground and three more books, and even discover a poet and lyricist lurking inside.
I am especially conscious of my age and vulnerability right now. There is nothing worrisome to report. I feel well. It’s just that–early in 2022–Tom and I are focusing on important administrative tasks to protect ourselves and our families.
Specifically, we will move to Medicare later this year, because we turn sixty-five in July. We have begun to do research. We’ve met with a third party. She explained how it works. She has helped to cut through the mystery. (By the way, I used to help organizations communicate about complicated health care and retirement programs, but that background doesn’t make this transition any easier.)
We also are updating our estate plans to make certain they reflect our Arizona status and latest wishes. The pandemic isn’t the driver, but it certainly has amplified our efforts to make sure our affairs are in order. As much as I hate dwelling on my mortality, it makes sense to plan ahead.
All of this technical and legal blather has clogged my brain lately, leaving me feeling a little dim. Is it a coincidence that the light in our refrigerator should go out yesterday? I don’t think so.
We tried replacing the old bulb with a new one, but it appears we have an electrical issue. Fortunately, the appliance is doing its job. It’s keeping our food cold (and frozen in the upper compartment). It’s just that we need a flashlight to find the yogurt, milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables.
I digress. That’s not what this story is about. Ironically, in the relative darkness of early 2022–the pandemic and our refrigerator–there’s a bright and new creative wrinkle to my writing that I want to talk about. One which changes the landscape of my past experience. One that goes beyond my blogging, memoir writing, poetry, and occasional forays into fiction.
About eight months ago, Marc–the artistic director of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus–blindsided me with this question: “Would you be interested in writing lyrics for a suite of songs for one of our concerts in 2022? It will be a celebration of diverse voices.”
Hearing these words, I think my jaw may have dropped. Once I closed my mouth and opened it again, “of course!” was my immediate response.
I could feel my smile grow ten sizes. I never imagined having an opportunity of this sort, especially concerning a topic that is so important and personal … turning the painful, transformative, and triumphant stories of Phoenix-area LGBTQA citizens into something more. Into poetry and music.
Since that early, exploratory conversation with Marc, I’ve collaborated with David (another member of the chorus) who is composing the music. I’ve written lyrics for four songs, which will be performed on March 12, 2022, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The concert will be part of Tempe’s Pride celebration.
On the evening of Tuesday, January 18, this will all become more real. Marc and David will pass out the music to members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus (including me sitting in the back row and singing second tenor).
For the first time, we will begin to rehearse the music David and I have created. I know I will feel a surge of pride and energy when I see the words “Lyrics by Mark Johnson” in the upper right corner of the score.
Sometimes life serves up happy surprises. It reminds us that our existence is more than needling administrative responsibilities, the darkness of a pandemic, or the frustrations of a burned-out light bulb.
Sometimes the outcome is brighter, more hopeful; we find ourselves exploring a new creative wrinkle, doing something we are passionate about, taking on a role we never saw coming.
Yes–remarkably at the age of sixty-four–I am a lyricist.
Last night my Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus friends and I rehearsed at the Parsons Center for Health and Wellness surrounded by AIDS quilts. In a moment of silence, we remembered the suffering and all of the lives lost to a despicable disease. Today, on World AIDS Day, “we remember all those lost to AIDS who had no one to memorialize them. They live in our hearts.”
Inviting but ominous as an empty bench, November casts its lingering light over Phoenix. It fades from somewhere to nowhere, between the gauzy clouds, beyond the distant mountains.
Today I will march (and sing) in the Phoenix Pride parade with other members of the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. As an open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–married to another open and relatively healthy sixty-four-year-old man–I have a lot to be proud of, a lot to be thankful for.
I remember the unactualized, closeted version of me in my thirties, the sense of isolation I felt after my divorce in 1992, the challenges of single parenthood as I sat alone in the bleachers (in a sea of suburban straight couples) watching my sons play ball, the pain and anxiety that ruled my life as I moved from job to job and tried to find my way.
Fortunately, by the mid-90s, I found friends and colleagues who supported me. They cheered when I came out and began to speak my truth.
In hindsight, knowing what it felt like to be ridiculed for who I am sharpened my empathy. It gave me strength and insight that–more than two decades later–I parlayed into my writing. In all four of my books, especially my latest, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, I tell the story of my personal and gay evolution.
Telling my truth has proven to be cathartic and healing. I am the happiest when I give voice to my experiences and opinions, whether they relate to my sexual orientation or not.
In 2021, I rarely find myself confronted with blatant homophobia. But there are occasional “teachable” moments when I encounter someone who is ignorant or unaware that gay people seek the same love, understanding, and sense of belonging that straight people receive unconditionally.
I don’t have a problem getting up on my soapbox to defend that right, though I also don’t crave controversy. I prefer simply living honestly and openly, and letting those around me observe how I lead my life … versus the pitfalls of social media exchanges.
The key is visibility. The more of us who are out–and proud–in our daily lives, the more individuals in all circles will realize we have the same hopes and dreams: a loving spouse and family, a safe and secure home, gainful employment, personal freedom, a sense of community and belonging.
As I march in the Phoenix Pride parade today, I’m sure I will see all sorts of people in the crowd: Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Native American. Many of them will be lesbian or transgendered or gay like me. Others will be straight allies cheering us on. There is power and creativity in our diversity.
Yes, we’ve come a long way in American society since I struggled along in the 1990s. But hatefulness has seen a resurgence. There are still instances of gay teens being kicked out of their homes or individuals losing their jobs, simply for being who they are.
What can we do as a society? Teach our children to love each other and embrace our differences. Because kindness is a choice; sexual orientation is not.
Pride postscript. It’s Saturday evening in Arizona. Though the parade is over, I will always remember the sense of freedom and inspiration I felt today. Shouting “Happy Pride” to exuberant strangers three deep along the parade route … all of us survivors of a frightening pandemic. Skipping down Third Street and singing Born This Way with my gay friends.
Rejoicing at the large number of young children in the crowd with gay and straight couples twirling rainbow flags. Waving to my smiling husband wearing his floppy hat. Celebrating the day with a rainbow umbrella that colored my world and protected my fair skin from the blazing sun.