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.
It’s time to dig out the loose change that’s fallen between your couch cushions and put it to good use! From April 23 to 30, you can download a Kindle copy of my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, for just ninety-nine cents on Amazon.
Set against the rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, my anthology of thirty-nine essays (some whimsical, some serious) explores the themes of family, community, authenticity, creativity, and uncertainty before and during COVID-19.
Here’s what one reader had to say: “Focusing on stories from his recent relocation as a full-time Arizona resident, Mark mines his past for insights into his new life, reflects deeper into the after-effects of surviving a health crisis, and even includes poems and works of short fiction. A great new collection from a distinctive contemporary voice.”
Are you missing your favorite monkey? Are you searching for a bridge to a higher plain? Do you need to be reminded that you are beautiful? You’ll find them all here along the Crosscut Canal between Scottsdale and Tempe.
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.
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’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.