Oh profoundly-prickly-and-possibly-prophetic pandemic,
Though our protectors should have prepared painstakingly,
We plan to protect our petals from your thorny problems,
We promise to follow nature’s prescription to bloom in place.
Oh profoundly-prickly-and-possibly-prophetic pandemic,
Though our protectors should have prepared painstakingly,
We plan to protect our petals from your thorny problems,
We promise to follow nature’s prescription to bloom in place.
On this sunny and breezy, seventy-degree day in the Sonoran Desert, I celebrate the life of Sherrell Richardson Ferrell. (He preferred S.R. Ferrell, because he thought it sounded more dignified.) March 9 would have been my maternal grandfather’s one-hundred-and-nineteenth birthday.
S.R. was a mountain of a man, who loved his Huntersville, North Carolina farm. I still remember him climbing the creaking steps of his back porch. Coming in from tending to his cattle and crops. Removing the broad-brimmed hat that shaded him from the Carolina heat. Swatting horseflies that followed him through the screen door. Mopping his brow and grabbing a bar of soap to wash the red earth off his massive arms and hands.
On the surface, it would seem S.R. and I had little in common other than our blood line. He was born in 1901 … a straight-and-practical, stoic Republican, who lived his entire life in the rural south. I was born in 1957 … a gay-and-artistic, emotional Democrat who made a living in a major Midwestern metropolis before escaping to the desert.
But after reading his fifty-two years of diary entries five years ago … a chronicle of every day in his life from age thirty-two in 1933 until his death at age eighty-four in 1985 … I know now we will always share our grief for Georgia Ferrell (his wife and my grandmother) and our writing impulses to leave behind a trail of our divergent lives.
Neither S.R. or I imagined that I would write a book about our journeys. That I would tell the story of a third writer between us … his oldest daughter Helen, my resilient mother … who left the south, survived her traumas and kept writing her wisdom-filled letters to ensure her family would remember her world and intellect.
But it is all clear to me now. More than any other, From Fertile Ground is the book I was meant to write. It is the story of all three of us finding our paths, loving our families, making our way against the odds. It is a story I was meant to share with the world.
During our visits to Huntersville in the 1960s, my sister Diane and I chased the peacocks that patrolled the farm. Inevitably, each time we returned to the St. Louis suburbs, we left with a few prized feathers and another batch of memories of our Grandpa Ferrell.
There he sat. Alone with his thoughts. Gliding in his chair like a prehistoric blogger. Recording the highlights of his day in his diary each night before bed. Hoisting his sore body out of his rocker. Placing his diary back on the mantle. Climbing the winding stairs to his bedroom for another chance to do it all again the following day.
This morning Tom and I took a hike with John and Sharon, good friends visiting from St. Louis. We walked portions of the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in north Scottsdale.
As we followed the switchbacks up and down the trail, it dawned on me that I am now nearly the same age S.R. was when I chased his peacocks and vacationed on his farm in 1962 and 1964. When he taught me to milk the cows. When he brought his ripe cantaloupes and melons in from the fields to prepare them for market.
Of course, S.R. never hiked this rugged mountain path. He never visited the sand and sun of the Arizona desert. Neither did Helen. They both preferred the cooler air, the green-and-misty escapes to the Smoky Mountains, the more fertile ground.
But there is comfort knowing that my grandfather’s lineage, his Scotch-Irish tenacity, his southern roots, his physical strength, his propensity to write, and his unmistakable Ferrell nose are with me on the trail of life.
They are all with me on my journey.
I suppose local meteorologists would tell you we have four seasons in the Valley of the Sun. But I wouldn’t characterize them as the same qualifying quadrants most residents of the northern hemisphere experience.
We don’t really have spring, summer, fall and winter in Scottsdale, Arizona. Instead, after living here year-round for the past two-and-a-half years, I would describe our seasons as spring (February and March), summer (April and May), mega-summer (our 100-plus oven existence of June through September), and autumn (October through January).
Nothing approaching arctic sensibility occurs here in February or anytime for that matter. Though, like this transformation of the seasons, I acknowledge that living in the Sonoran Desert I have become a different version of myself. I have shed my larger epidermis and middle-aged Midwestern fat deposits and reemerged as a trimmer-and-thinner-skinned desert rat.
Whenever I grab my hoodie on the way out the door on a sixty-degree day, after plucking another daily dose of Plavix generic substitute from my pill tray and gulping it with juice, it is evidence of my lighter persona. Now, my more swiftly-flowing, sixty-something blood often requires an extra man-made layer.
In addition to the physical changes in my Arizona existence, most assuredly February in the Sonoran Desert is nothing like the sled-riding, snow-blowing scenes of my past. It is sweet-and-sparkling spring time when the Acacia trees bloom. Cool forty-degree temperatures in the mornings. Bright seventy-degree afternoons. Just the right combination for wildflowers, which have suddenly decided to display their blossoms along roadsides, arid avenues and neighborhood yards.
Even our container of snapdragons is getting into the spring fling act. Tucked under the eaves of our front window, the elongated yellow blooms have begun to emerge from seedling skulls, which we dried and saved from the previous batch the year before.
In a few weeks, I expect our entire pot of snapdragons will be ablaze in color. Then, when the temperatures rise and April becomes May, the stalks will begin to dry and wither in the torrid summer sun.
Never fear. Tom and I will salvage the seeds. Save them for the next cycle. Wait for them to bloom again in a future February in Scottsdale, Arizona.
It doesn’t matter if shadows stretch or fears fly,
If breezes blow or mountains move,
If blossoms bloom or battles blaze,
If dreams delight or courts connive.
In January, July or November,
Or somewhere in between,
You will remind me what was,
What is and what shall be.
Written by Mark Johnson
January 26, 2020
I don’t expect to live 150 or 200 years, the span of a saguaro cactus. Yet it inspires me to follow its lead. To reach for the Sonoran sky. To transcend the inevitable scars of life that appear on exposed appendages. Perhaps perpetuated by a thirsty woodpecker. In my case, it’s a spot of invasive squamous cancer cells on my left hand. A patch that’s beginning to heal.
The temperature gauge in my Sonata read forty-one degrees as I pulled into the Omni Dermatology parking lot at eight this morning. Chilly for us desert rats. Though my Midwestern sensibility reminded me of January mornings in arctic Illinois when the cilia in my nostrils froze as I shoveled snow and inhaled subzero oxygen. A badge of honor for what I endured to earn a living.
Kind Claudia greeted me. Amanda’s replacement for the holidays. First treatment of 2020. Number eleven of twenty overall. More than halfway home. I handed her my blended bifocals in exchange for a less stylish pair of protective goggles, blue flak jacket and matching collar. Ready for another round in the radiotherapy barcalounger.
Claudia applied cool gel for the ultrasound. More flecks of green gremlins on the screen than before. Healthy cells populating where the darkness had been. Cheering from the sidelines. Newfangled therapy bowl game. All that matters is the final score.
Next stop. Secured square metal plate with a hole in the middle. Taped and surrounding the culprit. Quiet conversation with Claudia to hold us in place. No pain. Just procedure. Left hand gripped the padded recliner. Magical mechanical machine lowered tight on my hand like an intimate crane from construction crew captain Claudia. Excused for forty-five seconds. Out of the room.
Just the two of us: me and the humming machine. Less-sinister HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cold comfort. Scanning the wall through blurred vision. Amanda’s family photos. Notes and files on her desk. Radiation warning sign. Authorized personnel only.
Away-less-than-a-minute Claudia. Three sessions in our week-long radiotherapy affair over. Goggles and gear gone. Blue windbreaker and bifocals with me where they belong.
Back in my Sonata. Two degrees warmer than twenty minutes before. Ten new minutes in the car. East on Indian School Road. South on North 68th Street. Home in time to help Tom fold the laundry on January’s first Thursday.
I’ll do it all over again Monday. Next time, Amanda will greet me. Saguaro scars and all.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for flying with me in 2019. We’ve begun our descent into 2020. Please turn off all electronic devices, stow your tray, and return your seat to its upright position. Be sure your seat belt is fastened tightly across your lap, because we may encounter turbulence in the new year.
In case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop down and lighting will illuminate the floor to guide you to the nearest exit. Remember, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device in the event of a water landing.
As your faithful blogging pilot, I don’t have a clue what the next year or new decade will bring. But as a seasoned sixtyish storytelling survivor, in 2020 I will continue to write about the meaningful, magical and mundane moments. I imagine I will board my dusty desert time machine occasionally if you care to join me. Why? Because this is my blog and that’s what I do.
Before we land (safely, I hope) and deplane in 2020, I have a belated holiday gift waiting for you on Amazon. Until December 31, download a FREE Kindle copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator. It’s my book of twenty-six, up-and-down stories from my Missouri childhood. (If you decide to accept my gift and read it, please consider posting your review on Amazon or Goodreads.)
The final story, A New Year Resolution, fills me with hope and the warm possibilities of life. It’s a tribute to the citizenship of my mother and father, who did the right thing on a frosty St. Louis morning on January 1, 1962. I witnessed it through four-year-old eyes. Almost sixty years later, perhaps it’s also a good reminder that each of us has the power to help another human being in need.
Once again, thank you for visiting markjohnsonstories.com throughout the year. I know you have a choice of website destinations. I greatly appreciate all of my loyal followers, who have chosen to travel with me on life’s journey.
I’m boarding my dusty desert time machine again. Back a mere six years to the end of another odd-numbered year. 2013 was the last full year of my gainfully employed life. When I still claimed consulting colleagues and commuted to a confining cube in Chicago’s Loop.
Though I now earn a pittance stringing words together, I don’t miss the corporate skin I shed. In my sixties, storytelling from the desk of my cozy Scottsdale condo or a nearby coffee shop is a better fit. It quenches my quest for creativity. It placates my sense of purpose. It validates my voice. Plus doing it on my terms means I don’t have to kowtow to a boss and a set of corporate standards.
That got me thinking about how we Americans define ourselves on resumes. Often, the words we use describe things we’ve accomplished or labels we’ve become accustomed to. Certainly not who we are. Not what makes us tick. Not what we dream of or what nightmares we’ve endured.
Let’s face it. Most of us have survived significant traumas. Maybe we’d be better off if we touted our tenacity. If we recounted our rebounds from setbacks. If we honored our innate interests and abilities.
The biggest events on my trauma resume read something like this: divorced in 1992; fatherless in 1993; motherless in 2013; survived a mild heart attack in 2017. Of course, those seismic events don’t account for the day-in-day-out stress of single parenthood and a thirty-four-year corporate career juggling assignments and clients.
The good news is I’ve cleared all of those hurdles and discovered a fair amount of positive energy to counterbalance the traumas: finding and nurturing a committed twenty-three-year relationship with my husband; parenting two boys into their thirty-something adulthood; singing on stage with other gay men from 2010 to 2019; realizing a second career as an author beginning in 2015; writing and publishing three books since; and continuing to tell my stories from the wide-and-warm space of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
All of this is a giant preamble to tell you that I ran across my circa-2013 resume this week from my days as a consultant. I found it on one of my many flash drives. Near the top, under the “Career Overview” heading, it reads:
Results-oriented, strategic consultant with deep expertise in organizational change, employment branding, talent and rewards communication, diversity and philanthropy.
This is how I described myself on paper as an associate partner with Aon Hewitt six years ago. There’s nothing technically wrong with the words here. They accurately described my work experience and knowledge as a consultant who ran between meetings, collaborated on countless conference calls, and massaged executive egos.
It’s just that the statement is gobbledygook. It didn’t describe the man I was then. Certainly not the man I’ve become. So, even though I’m not in the market for a new job in 2020, I decided to take a crack at recasting my resume. How would I describe myself today in real-life terms in the same number of words? Maybe it would read something like this:
Sixtyish survivor, storyteller and truth-seeking author, who writes about the magnificent, mundane, messy and meaningful moments of life.
Ah. That’s much better.
You might think that excellent reports on a Monday from my cardiologist (“your blood pressure is good; your heart is strong; come back to see me in eight or nine months”) and gastroenterologist (“the polyps we removed during your colonoscopy were benign”) would be cause for celebration. You would be wrong.
At the end of the first Monday in December, I didn’t feel happy or relieved. I found myself in a funk. That’s because my dermatologist called on the same 3D-December Monday (cardio, gastro and dermo, oh my!) to confirm “the biopsy showed that you have a patch of invasive squamous cell carcinoma on your left hand.”
Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.
After I got off the phone with a skin cancer specialist, who explained the treatment options and assured me that my condition isn’t life threatening, Tom held my hand. He told me more of what I needed to hear. That everything will be okay. That we will get through this latest blip together. That it’s nothing compared with what happened in St. Louis on July 6, 2017. All for the chance to start a new life in a warmer home. To explore our sixties in the wide-open west of possibilities.
After all of this Monday mayhem, I needed to salvage some semblance of normalcy to the day. I needed to feel the fresh, creosote-laced air racing through my lungs. So I took a long walk alone. Along the cross-cut canal. Past the Papago buttes. Five thousand steps on a sunny-but-gauzy day restored my hope. It gave me comfort to see that none of the elements (not sun, not wind or rain) had affected these giant boulders. They were here long before me. Skin cancer or not, they will stand long after I’m gone.
In a separate attempt to rescue my day, I returned home to move our desert roses (aka adeniums). It was time to bring them inside to prepare for dormancy. I do this every December. I suppose, unlike the buttes, all of us living creatures need a little protection from the elements on certain days. Time to retreat. No water. No sun. Time to rest. Time to heal and rejuvenate.
Now it’s Tuesday. December continues in the Sonoran Desert. The sun is casting long shadows at sharp December angles. The adeniums are beginning their winter slumber in our sun room. Their leaves will fall soon and their branches will be bare. But new leaves will reappear in the spring after I carry my favorite desert flowers back outside to feel the warmth of the sun. To grow and bloom again.
Next Monday I will begin my own version of winter dormancy. It will be flecked with cancer treatments and holiday gatherings. Rather than surgery, I’ve opted for twenty pain-free sessions of superficial radiotherapy over the next several weeks. The procedure has a ninety-five-plus percent cure rate.
This course of action will allow me to continue my normal day-to-day activities … writing and exercising … and sing in two holiday concerts with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus on December 14 and 15. Being on stage and performing alongside my gay friends will bring me joy. Tom will be in the audience. My son Nick will be too, along with his girlfriend Aida, her two children and about a dozen other friends I didn’t know in 2017.
Late in January 2020, I expect to receive good news from my dermatologist. Something positive and life affirming. Something like what the cardio and gastro folks have already told me. Perhaps that the Superficial Radiotherapy Treatments (SRT) have fully eradicated the skin cancer cells on my left hand.
Whatever transpires, I am a fortunate guy. Tom and I will begin a new decade in our Arizona home. Faithfully smearing on sunscreen and wearing broad-brimmed hats. Continuing to follow all of our doctors’ orders. Writing, healing and growing together. Watching our desert roses bloom and fade in our less-than-certain sixties.
What more could I ask for?
I wince when wires obstruct the buttes before me. I suppose it’s a part of life I must endure. Just like the car alarm blaring outside my backdoor as I write this sentence. It supersedes the mockingbird I prefer.
Even worse, the woman walking her fluffy dogs in the park. She ruins the encounter by wearing a red cap I can’t stomach. The same slogan is emblazoned on the canines’ collars. I’m too angry to make eye contact with her. I prefer a campaign to Make Red Hats Wearable Again.
Life is filled with such irritations. Yet, as November winds down and we Americans prepare to gather around tables of all shapes and sizes to proclaim our thankfulness with too much turkey, stuffing, football, pie and impeachment controversy, I am grateful for other things.
Certainly, I am fortunate to have the love and companionship of my husband. Both of my sons are finding full and meaningful lives. I live in a country (admittedly, one deeply divided right now) where I can express my opinions freely. In my sixties, I’ve discovered new friends and reliable doctors in a warm community. I have health coverage and a comfortable home. Many people don’t.
I’m also thankful for the little surprises that appear out of the blue. Like the gilded flicker I spotted during my walk along the canal. This large woodpecker, complete with a splash of red rouge on either side of his head, is native to the Sonoran Desert. In the stillness, he perched high above me on a branch for a full minute on Friday and looked down as if to say “You’d better pay attention to me. This is the good stuff of life.” So I did.
Then on Sunday. Another rare sight to behold. Tom and I were writing and reading in a local coffee shop when a handsome man entered wearing a black fedora. (Actually, handsome men aren’t rare in Scottsdale, Arizona. But fedora sightings are.)
According to the website “History of Hats”, this wide-brimmed hat made of felt first appeared in 1882 in the production of a play called “Fedora” by the French author Victorien Sardou. It was designed for actress Sarah Bernhardt. Over time, the hat became popular for women’s rights activists.
After 1924, fedoras were adopted by men as a fashion statement because Prince Edward of Britain started wearing them. Somehow, soon after, they appeared on gangsters during Prohibition in the United States. In the 1940s and 1950s, you saw fedoras everywhere on the heads of manly men on stage and in noir films (Frank Sinatra and Humphrey Bogart). After that, the fedora fad faded. Informal clothing won the day.
In November 2019, without warning, one snazzy fedora resurfaced on the noggin of a smart citizen in a Scottsdale, Arizona coffee shop. Though I was pleasantly surprised, I was also observant enough to spot it in a sea of ordinary western, baseball and stocking caps.
Flickers and fedoras. I have so much to be thankful for.
At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.
Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …
It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”
Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”
It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.
I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.
Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc.
I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.
This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.
I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.
The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.
Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.
Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.
In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.
Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness: two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.
On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.
Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.
A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.
In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.
Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again. Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.
Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.
For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?