Tag: St. Louis

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

Bavarian Bliss

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Munich  (“Home of the Monks”) is much more than beer and pretzels.

The capital of Bavaria and the third largest city in Germany has deep roots. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they wind and trail back to the Benedictine monastery at Tegernsee, which was founded in 750.

Nearly twelve hundred years later, more than forty percent of Munich’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing raids during World War II. Today the city is a hub in the banking industry and home to the annual two-week Oktoberfest celebration, which ends on the first Sunday in October.

My husband and I toured Munich on September 15. It was a quiet Sunday about a week before all of the beer-laden and oompapa festivities of Oktoberfest. All of the shops were closed, but that didn’t faze us. We were content to ogle stylish Oktoberfest apparel through storefront glass and soak up summer temperatures. We couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day to navigate the normally bustling Marienplatz on foot.

We craned our necks skyward when the Glockenspiel in the New Town Hall played promptly at 11 a.m. Afterwards, we discovered a charming cafe and dined outside. We filled our bottles with fresh water streaming from a city fountain. Next, we were ready for a defining moment: climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Church for An Unobstructed View of the city’s historic skyline.

At this point, I realized how far Tom and I had come. I’m not talking about the actual distance from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to Munich, Germany, via a congested connection through Montreal with a sea of tired travelers. I’m referring to our personal journey.

After my cardiac event in St. Louis on July 6, 2017, the notion of climbing 299 steps skyward anywhere (much less in a tight space with few opportunities to pause) seemed implausible. Yet, without fanfare, on the last Sunday of summer in Munich two years later, Tom and I paid three euros a piece to an attendant for the experience of saying we had done it. We entered the church for the pleasure of mounting steep and circuitous steps. We joined a trail of able-bodied adventurers, who flowed up and down around us.

To the top of the church spire we climbed. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the pinnacle. We took a deep breath or two and stepped out into an open-air observation area, where steel bars shielded us.

Together we wrapped our way around the circumference of the tower. We gazed across the horizon. We took a few more extended and grateful breaths. We captured a series of photos of a storied city.

Without the effects of beer or pretzels, we found our Bavarian bliss.

 

 

That’s Not My Bag, Baby

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In reality, it is my bag. I just wanted to say it wasn’t, so I could quote Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery from the 1997 movie that spoofs 1960s spy films. This commemorative swingin’ sixties Woodstock bag, while not remotely vintage, was a groovy gift from a friend about ten years ago. She knew how much my husband and I love pop culture from that era. Primarily because we were children of the sixties.

Truth be told, now that we are fully ensconced in our sixties, Tom and I schlep this colorful tote bag with us on fall, winter, and spring Saturday mornings when we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Scottsdale Farmers Market here in Arizona.

By now, I’m sure you’ve realized this Baby Boomer bag is nothing more than a lame prop for me to tell a story about the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival … billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music” … a pivotal moment in popular music history which actually stretched into four days (August 15-18, 1969) of peace, rock, sex, drugs, rain, mud and traffic on and around Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.

The irony of me writing this story is that I have no personal connection to Woodstock. No substantive recollection of it either. It wasn’t so much that Woodstock wasn’t my bag. It simply wasn’t on my radar as a twelve-year-old boy living in the steamy suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1969. Perhaps I was a little too young. Or maybe just a little too out of touch with what was happening outside my immediate world.

My focus was on other things closer to home. Mostly, following my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, collecting baseball cards and creating my own canvas to obsessively scribe the scores of all twenty-four major league baseball teams on it every day from April to September of 1969. As I described in my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, by the end of the regular season, I had recorded 3,888 handwritten ball scores and squeezed them onto one giant rolled up piece of paper!

You can see I had no time or inclination to join the wave of Woodstock worshipers from afar. Even if I had, my Lawrence-Welk-loving parents had different ideas of what constituted popular music … a-oney-and-a-twoy-and-a … and they controlled the TV dial in our household.

It would be another thirty years before I’d really see and hear Woodstock. The moment of enlightenment came in the form of a grainy VHS tape of the 1970 film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I sat with my future husband on the love seat in his Schaumburg-Illinois condo. Together we immersed ourselves in the actual performances, interviews with some of the artists, and candid footage of the fans.

Thanks to the film and the resourcefulness of my movie-loving husband, I got to see and hear Richie Havens open the show and Jimi Hendrix close it on the same well-traveled stage before a sea of soaked teens. Though it had taken me thirty years longer than the rest of the country, I had finally closed the gap in my knowledge about the “Three Days of Peace and Music” in mid-August 1969 that would come to define the counterculture movement of our generation.

 

 

 

To See It All Clearly

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I was wearing broken blended bifocals when my husband Tom and I arrived at our new home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on July 12, 2017. The frames had cracked in St. Louis during our July 6 cardiac ordeal there. Then, on the evening of July 10, as we prepared to check into our hotel room in Weatherford, Oklahoma, they proceeded to fall apart. The lenses landed on the counter in a clatter. I sighed and shrugged as Tom, the front desk attendant and I took turns taping the pieces back together.

Like the death of my smart phone heading south from Chicago to St. Louis earlier in our journey, it was just the latest mishap on our way west from one home to another … the latest coincidental casualty in the Bermuda Triangle of my mild heart attack (an oxymoron far less laughable than jumbo shrimp) on my sixtieth birthday in the city where I was born.

Fortunately, we arrived safely in Arizona less than a week after a cardiac swat team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis removed the blockage in the left side of my heart and inserted two sparkling stents for good measure. By the middle of July, Tom and I found The Frame Doctor in Phoenix. For sixty bucks, he was able to salvage my lenses (they were undamaged) and insert them (a much less delicate procedure than the one with my back on a gurney back in St. Louis) into a new, somewhat stylish, set of frames that served me well in my first two years as an aspiring Sonoran Desert rat.

But I began to notice some changes in my vision recently. So, in July I visited my new ophthalmologist for an annual eye exam. He confirmed what I already knew. My vision had changed. He told me I needed a stronger prescription and a new pair of eyeglasses. I picked them up on Tuesday.

Perhaps it’s strangely poetic that the mangled glasses that got me here … the glasses that made it possible for me to write An Unobstructed View and tell my stories here about my first two years in Arizona … have now been retired. They have become my back ups. The more powerful ones you see above, straddling my latest book, have taken their place. I’m counting on them to do their job in my blended bifocal world. Propped on my nose, they will accompany me wherever I go.

I’ll need them to see it all clearly … every memorable and not-so-memorable moment, every stunning Scottsdale sunset and monsoon storm, every word I read and write on the road that is life’s journey.

 

 

 

 

The World Was Our Oyster

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My mother, Helen F. Johnson (the F was for Ferrell), sent me more than a thousand letters during her lifetime from her home in St. Louis. After she died in January 2013, reading them gave me comfort and strength.

Each letter contained a treasure trove of information: personal anecdotes, parenting and investment advice, and countless words of love and encouragement. (They and my grandpa Ferrell’s farm-life diaries from North Carolina inspired me to write and publish my first memoir, From Fertile Ground. It’s a story about love, loss and leaving your mark on the world.)

Inside Helen’s letter dated April 1, 2002, was this photo of her with my dad, Walter Johnson. Someone captured this image in Texas seventy years ago today (July 26th, 1949) on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday. How do I know for sure? Because Helen wrote about it in her letter. Here’s a snippet of what she told me that day.

“… Walt and me when we were young and happy and the world was our oyster. It was taken on my 26th birthday at Club Seven Oaks–off the highway about halfway between San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX. We had been married 10 months. We had 14 happy years before he had his heart attack that took all our lives through some difficult times … It helps me to look at us then and remember there were some good years. Few people live a life without difficulties–something we learn as we live and age.”

Today, on what would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday, the best way I know of celebrating her life, wisdom, and passion for letter writing, is to share her story … really our story … with the world. To that end, on July 26, 27 and 28, you can download a free Kindle copy of From Fertile Ground on Amazon.  I feature many more of Helen’s letters in my book.

A Trip Beyond a Sliver of the Moon

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A look skyward this morning carried me back. In an instant, I jettisoned one freshly trimmed Scottsdale palm and a barely-detectable sliver of the moon for an unscheduled trip to my 1969 St. Louis summer crew cut and pubescent, eleven-year-old body.

When I landed in a black-and-white TV world, it was three weeks before two men walked on the moon. To gather my wits, I twirled the knobs of my transistor radio. Past the dollar bleacher seats of my Cardinals’ baseball childhood. I searched frantically up and down the dial for an empty channel in the frequency.  For coverage of Dorothy’s fond farewell before she clicked her heels. For a flashpoint on Christopher Street that took us from Stonewall to somewhere over the rainbow. But it wasn’t meant to be. I left without finding them there.

Now, fifty years have passed. I’m nearly sixty two. I’m living in the Sonoran heat with a fresh summer haircut. I lead a full and open life with my husband. Together we share all the scars and joys of being gay. Every omission. Every discovery. Every hurt. Every realization. Every victory. Every monsoon. Every full moon. It’s as it should be. They are all a part of our journey.

A Father’s Wish List

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It was nearly two years ago that I found myself lying on a gurney at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. It was July 6, 2017. My sixtieth birthday. I had just suffered a mild heart attack and entered the vast and unfamiliar world of emergency room doctors, cardiologists, attending nurses, and multi-syllabic medical procedures.

I had two wishes that day: to survive the ordeal with my husband; and to speak with both of my adult sons to let them know I was okay. Thankfully, both of my wishes came true.

Late in the afternoon of July 6, Jacob, an EKG technician in his early thirties, turned me on my left side. He applied a cooling gel and ran a device across my chest to record images of my heart.

At that moment, Jacob gave me an unexpected gift that carried me past the immediate task and my pain. He confided in me that he was a new father adjusting to a sleepless existence. Working to raise and protect his newborn son. Overwhelmed by the sudden changes in his life.

Strange as it was–with my health hanging in the balance–Jacob and I entered a new landscape.  We talked about something we had in common. We were both dads. It was something like staring into a painted desert of fatherhood (like what you see here in Arizona) where unexplored layers of possibilities abound.

As I spoke with Jacob, I conjured fleeting memories of my two sons as tumbling toddlers and testy teens. I told him to hang in there and relish the early years. To try to realize that the heavy lifting of fatherhood would fade over time.

I told him there would be meaningful moments ahead with his son. Moments I cherished with my sons. Moments he might cherish with his boy too when he looked back over his life.

Occasionally, over the past two years, I’ve thought of Jacob and wondered how he was coping … knowing we will likely never meet again.

Now, with Father’s Day upon us, I wish I could offer him more ideas on what it takes to be a good dad. To that end, I’ve composed the following list … friendly advice from a fellow father who’s looking out for all the Jacobs in the world who are striving to be the best dads they can be.

***

Love your son … and tell him you do.

Listen to and validate his dreams.

Provide him with an honest and safe home.

Buy him nutritious food and encourage him to exercise.

Cheer him on when he succeeds. Encourage him when he fails.

Don’t spend a lot of money buying him new things. Spend it on shared experiences instead.

Teach him the importance of lifelong learning and saving money for a rainy day.

Show him what it means to respect animals, nature and diverse people.

Explain to him that it’s a sign of strength to ask questions and show vulnerability.

Love your son no matter who he loves. Remind him you’ll always be his dad.

 

The Soldier on the Hill

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When I drafted this poem on August 27, 1996, I wrote it as a tribute to my father, Walter Johnson, who died in 1993. He was an aspiring-but-unfulfilled poet and proud World War II veteran, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge towards the end of the war in Europe.

Dad is buried here at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery–just south of St. Louis, Missouri–alongside thousands of others who served their country and, in many cases, died defending it.

As Memorial Day approaches, I’m posting this to honor Walter and all of the soldiers on the hill, who rest eternally on the banks of the Mississippi River.

***

I talked with the soldier on the hill today.

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand–all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

 

Fifty Posts … One Breath at a Time

 

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I launched my website about a year ago. That’s when I began to blog. I had no preconceived notions about what it would mean, where my thoughts would lead me, who might be interested in what I had to say or how it would feel to send my words into the blogosphere in real time on a regular basis.

I simply knew I needed to continue to nurture my writing obsession, beyond the three memoirs I’d written and published. To keep telling meaningful, uplifting and true tales. To focus on what I know best: the journey of a sixty-plus gay man and his sixty-plus husband living in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Today I send this, my fiftieth post, into the world.  I consider that an accomplishment worth celebrating. Especially when I recall that my husband and I nearly didn’t make it to our new home after I suffered a heart attack on the road in St. Louis on the way west from Chicago to Phoenix in July 2017.

This morning, during our weekly “gentle” yoga class in Scottsdale, I realized I began practicing yoga in early 2018 just a few months before I began blogging. At the start of each class Debbie, our seasoned instructor, dims the lights and sets the mindfulness mood. She reads a passage in even tones to help us get comfortable and follow the rise and fall of our chests. In her words today, “One breath at a time … Let yourself go. Let yourself be … To allow the truth in life to be revealed.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental. But over the past year — as I’ve become more in touch with my body, mind and spirit — I’ve also become more aware of what’s happening around me. What’s revealed in my daily life. What it feels like to live and breathe in 2019. So that’s what I’ll continue to write about.

I may have buried the lead. A smattering of citizens from Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, South Africa, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and the United States have read one or more of my posts. Thank you. I am humbled and grateful.

In the future, I’ll do my best to keep shining a light on the beauty of nature and the serendipitous moments of life … droplets in an otherwise thorny world of challenges. No matter where you live, I hope you’ll continue to follow me on my literary journey, comment when you feel the urge to do so or one day pick up one of my books.

Together we’ll take it one breath at a time.

 

 

I’ll Be Seeing You

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On the afternoon of April 23, I wrote and sipped ice tea at Echo, an independent coffee shop in Scottsdale. I sat there, creating characters and spinning scenarios for a piece of fiction.

At some point, I became aware of the sounds in the room: my husband typing on his laptop across the table; the chatter of patrons; the whir of a barista grinding coffee beans; the soaring voice of Ella Fitzgerald cascading down upon us. It was her rousing rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You, an iconic 1940s tune my mother, Helen Johnson, loved. So much so that my sister and I chose to play it at her memorial service in 2013.

The irony of hearing the song on April 23 was that I had been feeling blue all day. I’d spoken with the manager of an independent bookstore a few hours before. She said she hadn’t recently sold any copies of my first book, From Fertile Ground, a three-generation memoir I wrote and published in 2016 about the grief I experienced after my mother’s death. The manager had decided to pull it from the store’s shelves. I could pick up the five remaining paperbacks at my convenience.

From a business standpoint, this isn’t unusual. Books come and go. Bookstores have a limited amount of space. They’re under intense pressure to maximize the revenue possibilities on their shelves and keep their inventory fresh to entice readers. Intellectually, I got that. But, emotionally, I felt something different. Disappointment. Sadness. Grief.

If you’ve lost someone you loved, you know what I mean. The wound of grief heals with time, but is ever present. As a character in the 2010 movie Rabbit Hole explains, grief is like carrying a stone in your pocket. Some days the stone is heavy. Other days the stone is light. But the stone is always with you and over time provides strange comfort. For me, that metaphor rings true.

To take it one step further, imagine if you wrote a book about the stone, as I did. You mustered all the energy and creativity you could to tell the tale of grief. About an adventure-seeking woman from rural North Carolina, who leaves the south and her hard-working parents. The woman finds a new-and-often-tumultuous life in St. Louis, where she builds a successful career, becomes a wife, mother, and grandmother. One day she retires. She decides to devote her time and energy to writing and sending a litany of letters about the lessons she’s learned to those she loves.

Of course, no matter how many books I sell, I am grateful for my writing and the satisfaction it gives me. I will always have my book as a chronicle of Helen’s life, death and legacy.  I will always have my memories of writing it. Capturing the universal story of love and loss that permeates every life. Hearing from friends and strangers who enjoy reading it. As a writer, this is what I’ll hold onto even as we live in a society of constant distraction that overemphasizes the latest superhero movie and undervalues the historical perspective, humanity and truth in books all around us.

As Mother’s Day approaches, this is the most meaningful part of the stone metaphor. This is what I choose to carry with me:

I still love you, Helen. There is comfort knowing that I’ll be seeing you and your fading blue eyes in my writing. For as long as I’m in the world, I’ll be seeing you in my grief.

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To learn more about  From Fertile Ground, listen to my podcast interview on The Authors Show.