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.
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.
May crept in under the cover of disease and darkness. By late morning, after an hour of restorative outdoor yoga under the shade of an Arizona pine, she sped past spring and delivered summer beauty and floral comfort: our first desert rose bloom of the season.
Cue Midwestern years, purple-iris moments with mother, pink peonies that drooped over the driveway after it rained, and this poem. I penned it four years ago when I still called Illinois my home.
Arriving welcome, clean and fresh, reflecting skies grow amorous.
Crisp at dawn, bursting through, captured by a mother’s view.
Blooming lilacs, sweet repose, ducklings lined up in a row.
Bounding blooms, fast and pure, veiled in peonies pink allure.
Reaching high, bred for speed, stretching out to take the lead.
Calm til dusk, an even pace, ushered in the rain’s disgrace.
When my mother died in January 2013, she left behind a little money in an account. It was earmarked for charitable purposes only.
Over the years, my sister and I distributed small amounts to organizations in her name. Some money went to children’s charities; other stipends supported research to eradicate dreadful diseases.
With time, the account dwindled. The fund faded to the point where fees were beginning to gobble up money that would be better used by a charity. Seeing the dollars decline was something like witnessing the effects of the macular degeneration that clouded Helen Johnson’s vision late in life.
Today, after processing the final grant from her account, I imagined my mother sitting outside with me on a spring day in Wheaton, Illinois, where she lived her last few years. The daffodils bloomed as she modeled her freshly painted nails. It was a luxury she wouldn’t have dreamed of earlier in life … born of the rural South, a child of the Great Depression that left most families in turmoil, scraping to make ends meet.
Somehow, Helen survived all that. She left North Carolina at age twenty-two with two friends. She found a job in St. Louis, Missouri, just as World War II was ending. She met Walter Johnson. They married and brought two children into the world.
Helen went back to work after Walter had a heart attack in the fall of 1962. The next few years were lean ones for our family. Over time, Helen built a career and found ways to keep us afloat.
She and Walter had a tough time of it, but somehow they managed to stay together. They scrimped and saved. She retired in 1987. He died in 1993. She lived on, nurturing her family and flowers. Eventually, she said goodbye at 89.
Now, here I sit. Remembering my wise, kind and resilient mother. Knowing that the money she left behind will put food on the tables of hungry families in 2020, support the planting of shade-producing trees, grant a wish for a needy child, care for healthier hearts, and allow a few disadvantaged citizens to raise their voices proudly in an uncertain world.
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.