Tag: Storytelling

Antidote for Grief

Grief is an insidious and universal human condition. When you love someone–and they leave or die–you need something to fill the space they’ve left behind. Grief enters to fill the void.

If you are in the midst of grieving (as I was in 2013 and 2014 after my mother passed away), it may feel as if you are wandering through a deep fog. Or you might wonder if you are chained to the floor in the middle of an empty room with water pouring in over all four walls and seeping through the floor boards.

That’s how grief can manifest itself, but for each of us the path is different. The loss lightens over the years. Still, we carry it wherever we go. It becomes an extension of us, ingrained in our identities.

In 2014 and 2015, I saved myself from drowning in grief by writing about it. My mother and grandfather helped immensely. They left behind a trail of their thoughts and experiences on paper … in the form of a mountain of letters from Helen (my resilient mother) and diaries from S.R. (my farming grandfather).

After my mother’s demise, reading her handwritten and wisdom-filled memories and her dad’s more stark observations prompted me to tell all three of our stories in one book. From Fertile Ground became my salvation. Yes, in 2015 it consumed me, but it also gave me renewed creative purpose and focus after I left my corporate job.

When I finished and published the book in 2016, I felt it was a story that would alleviate pain for grief-stricken souls. Five years later, I still feel that way. It helps me to revisit my book and my grief from time to time. Readers have taken the time to write reviews like this one online.

“From Fertile Ground” is more than just a terrific read. Johnson is generous in taking the reader into his world, his journey, his family, his emotions. In so doing, the reader obtains a soothing sense of identification of the human condition, particularly how we work through grief and loss. Johnson’s mother’s and grandfather’s letters are interspersed throughout the narrative (and connected) which adds to the reassuring sense of a collective history.

We live in a complicated world. Many of us are suffering through the side effects of loss and searching for answers. It gives me joy knowing that my book is a creative balm for many, possibly even an antidote for grief.

Through October 14, download From Fertile Ground for just 99 cents. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01DCUQR4C/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3. (The price of my book is reduced in the United Kingdom during that same period.) If you prefer a paperback, it’s available in that form too.

At any rate, as the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope this personal and universal three-generation story inspires you and brightens your world … no matter who you’ve loved and lost, no matter where you live.

From Fertile Ground is a three-generation memoir and writer’s mosaic of love and loss. Published in 2016, it examines the implications of grief and our quest to make sense of our past so that we can find our path and move ahead.

Midwest Bound

Tom and I are flying to St. Louis tomorrow. On Saturday, I will attend an outdoor reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America’s circa-1970s employees. About 200 of us will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the amusement park in the rolling hills of Eureka, Missouri thirty miles southwest of the Gateway Arch that towers over the Mississippi River.

Now called Six Flags St. Louis, the theme park is where I landed my first job in 1974. It’s where I learned to “drive” the River King Mine Train, the park’s first rollercoaster. It’s also where I began to navigate life’s ups and downs. Who knew the experience for three summers would become a metaphor and catalyst for a book I would write more than forty years later?

This will be my first trip to St. Louis since July 2017. I’m overdue to write a new and rejuvenating chapter in my original hometown … one that doesn’t include heart trauma and a personal detour that spawned uncertainty on my sixtieth birthday.

I’m excited and a little anxious about this journey, given the relentlessness of our global pandemic. But Tom and I have been fully vaccinated and will mask up for this adventure.

No doubt, the trip will reignite a flame of familiar faces and memories. I expect there will also be a few surprises and a mix of bittersweet feelings and observations seen through blended bifocals and sixty-four-year-old eyes. We’ll see.

After the Missouri reunion–plus a visit to my parents’ graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a few hours reconnecting with my cousin Phyllis in St. Charles, and coffee with a St. Louis friend I haven’t seen for more than twenty-five years–Tom and I will drive to Chicago to see my son Kirk and our sisters Sharon and Diane.

We haven’t visited the Windy City … a place I called home from 1980 to 2017 … or spent time with our siblings in the suburbs there since June of 2019. Of course, the pandemic is the culprit that accounts for that gap.

I wrote the poem that follows five years ago. In 2017, it first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of reflective, light-hearted, growing-up-in-Missouri stories.

Perhaps these words will resonate with you–wherever you were born, wherever you call home. The poem certainly has special meaning for me as I return to visit my homes in Missouri and Illinois that account for most of the first sixty years of my life, before Tom and I created this warmer, lighter, and simpler life in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

***

Coming Home

I saw you there day after day. We were together leaving the station. We made our way around the track. But now I don’t see you anymore. Where have you gone familiar ones? Could it be you left the track and vanished? Am I alone looking down from my perch? Are the markers and signs all that remain? What became of the rises and falls? Have you left me in charge to man the controls? Am I enough to carry this forward? Why have you brought me back here? Oh, that’s right. I remember now. I was on a journey. I was coming home.

I wore this badge for three summers (1974-1976) as a rollercoaster operator at Six Flags Over Mid-America in Eureka, Missouri.

The Catbird Seat

In the dog days, our community cat gets top billing. From the crook of our gnarled fig tree, Poly waits to swat an unsuspecting finch ready to extract seeds.

Staring me down through our den window, Poly assumes this enviable position at seven o’clock a few mornings each week. I tap on the glass to dissuade her. I can’t bear to see a finch fall or for Poly to end up behind bars.

On other days, Poly plays it safe. After the sprinklers stop hissing, she rests on the ground in the shade under the eaves or cavorts with her taffy-colored feline friend.

Poly is that hard-to-corral library book I don’t own, filling each page with texture and character. As summer winds down, she plots in the catbird seat. I don’t want our chapters to end, but someday soon I suspect they will.

After Our Stories Set Sail

I feel the pain and glory of every writer. We build the frames of our books, chapter by chapter. The process takes years. It is the culmination of time, art, and commitment.

We begin in the darkness in front of an empty page or a blank screen. We write a sentence or two that makes sense. We add and subtract in words. We rinse and repeat. We submerge ourselves to find the deepest meaning in the mundane and the spectacular.

One day, after months of determination and doubt, our rough draft is done. But we pause only briefly. We don’t want to lose our momentum. We dive back in for round after round of edits, because we want our stories to adhere to each other and to every reader who spends time with them.

Finally, the rewriting and polishing reveal the stories we intended. We invite a few trusted professionals, an editor and graphic designer, to join us in the literary chase. They stand by us on shore as we rewrite and polish passages, as we search for and discover the perfect cover, as we tweak phrases one final time, as we launch our true and false stories into the world.

As I watch my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, begin to bob on the waves of the reading world in the middle of a global pandemic, I wonder. What will happen next? Who will read my book? What will it mean to them? What will readers have to say about it?

These are just a few of the questions we independent writers ask after our stories set sail. We are brimming with ideas, but also uncertainties. We have little control over where our stories land. All we can do is breathe life into them, guide them from afar, send a little money their way, push trade winds in their direction, and wait to hear about our creations once they have landed.

Only then is a writer’s journey complete.

From Crab Apples to Lemon Trees

In June 1962, a month before my fifth birthday, I stood alone outside the west wall of my brick childhood home. I wore my high-top Keds and cargo shorts with crazy pockets. The wind raced past my crew cut.

Our three-bedroom ranch in south suburban St. Louis appeared identical to two dozen others in the neighborhood, except ours featured a flowering pink crab apple tree with stair-step limbs I loved to climb.

In the shade of the branches, a clear thought jumped to the forefront of my brain. “I am different. I have important things to say.” The idea lingered and swirled through my consciousness.

As I look back at that vivid memory—one of my earliest—I must have recognized I was unlike most of the other boys. At that young age, I must have known I was gay. I must have begun to identify a need to share my thoughts and tell my stories one day.

Since that moment, I have lived at least four lives—shaped by local geography—and written four books. I have played in the red earth of North Carolina, navigated the rolling hills of Missouri, survived the flatlands of Illinois, and discovered the peaks and valleys of Arizona.

I never imagined I would live and write in my sixties in the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, but the trail of life has led me here to the threshold of publishing my fourth book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree. It will appear on Amazon (in paperback and Kindle versions) in late January or early February. Of course, once it is available for purchase, I will let you know.

In the first three years of my Arizona residency—2017 through 2020—the Grand Canyon State has enriched and shaped my life with natural beauty, profound uncertainty, and joyful humor. My goal was to reflect all three in this book, and develop a larger narrative about a gay man and his husband fulfilling their dreams, reflecting on their experiences, hoping to survive a global pandemic, and aging in a bold landscape.

If you are drawn to the themes I explore here on my blog and in my books—nature, family, community, heritage, human rights, humor, love, loss, health, truth, diversity, and creativity—I think you will enjoy reading my latest book.

Of course, nearly six decades have passed since I stood by that flowering pink crab apple tree I loved as a child. It has been replaced by the citrus trees that surround Tom and me in our sixties in our Scottsdale condo community. But the value of memory and storytelling is that I can remember the most important trees, past and present. I can choose to honor each of them.

Little did I know that one day a luscious lemon tree, thirty feet outside my front door, would inspire me to write and share the broader stories of my Arizona life.

Birdland 2020

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When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.

He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.

“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.

Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.

Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.

The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.

Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a  passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.

Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.

All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.

While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.

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Between the Leaves

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I wait and watch for a streak of color. Darting from orange trees to palms, teasing me with a burst of playful chatter an octave higher than the rest.

In early mornings and late afternoons their love is on patrol. Campaigning for an end-of-summer fling before racing past the pool, back to school, purely from a distance.

Their tweets are the only ones I care to hear or ponder. For they live unencumbered, flying above the fray, pausing briefly to whisper true stories between the leaves.

Carousel Questions

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Carved and colossal, how long will you stand in shiny, sterile silence?

Round and repeating, what has happened to your cotton-candy companions?

Merry and mighty, what will become of your wheel of carefree independence?

***

On this Independence Day holiday weekend in the United States, we have so many hot spots. So many worries. So many questions. So few answers. One thing is certain. We’re better off  celebrating this Fourth of July safely and quietly at home.

If you find yourself feeling queasy from news reports, missing the carousels of life or in need of a little inspiration, consider getting lost in a true story of reflection, hope and survival.

From July 3 through July 7, you can download a Kindle version of my latest book, An Unobstructed View, on Amazon for just ninety-nine cents.

Stay well, my friends!

Fathers of the Desert

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Empirical and imperfect, you are the keepers of the west.

You bear fruit for mourning doves.

You guard cottontails and creosote.

You stand sturdy and erect.

You love, fear and forgive.

Your spiny symmetry shades our world.

You cast lengthy shadows.

You fall mightily.

You are the fathers of the desert.

You remember everything.

You forget nothing.

You are the proof of yesterday, the path of today, the hope for tomorrow.

The Ice Plant Bloometh

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This catastrophic day began innocently and pleasantly enough. At 8:55 a.m. Tom and I pulled up to my dermatologist’s office. I returned for a follow-up visit with Dr. R … seven weeks after the last of my twenty superficial radiotherapy treatments designed to heal my left hand.

After I waved to Amanda, his assistant who I bonded with three times a week for the second half of December and two-thirds of January, Dr. R. scanned my left hand and pronounced it healed. Sweet relief. Happily, his recommended course of action eradicated the evil invasive squamous cancer cells that set up shop in November.

Tom and I celebrated with a walk along the nearby cross-cut canal. We inhaled the desert air, saturated with the scent of blooming orange blossoms. At one point, we crossed paths with an Australian shepherd named Ozzie and his walker. (The Baby Boomers in us joked and wondered if her name might be Harriet.) No matter. The adorable tri-colored pooch had one brown and one blue eye. I should have known the day would deliver mixed results.

The tide turned. I received an ominous text from a friend. He’s a healthcare professional. Over the weekend, one of his clients tested positive for COVID-19.  I texted back. “I’m here for you. Let me know if you need or want to talk.” Earlier in the day, I sent a similar message of support and encouragement to another friend, quarantined in his home with symptoms and a horrible week-old story about his inability to get tested in a broken healthcare system.

As the day progressed, I worried about them both. I tried to maintain some sense of normalcy. Tom and I–teetering on a tightrope between our colossal canal experience and the pandemic realities of our day–squeezed in a game of Scrabble at a local coffee shop.

Though it may sound ill-advised, a trip to our community gym followed to release our anxiety and strengthen our hearts and surrounding muscles. We wiped down the machines before and after our workouts, kept our distance from a smattering of other familiar patrons, and slathered ourselves in hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

This is what a global pandemic will do for you. Chaotic and cataclysmic. Stunning and surreal. News you can’t deny or escape. A hoarding society of empty shelves of toilet paper. An ill-equipped nation trying to flatten the curve. An under-qualified-and-over-inflated president (that’s the kindest description I can offer).

More bad news every moment. Rising numbers of infections and death. Endless lists of school and work closings. Restaurant and bar closings. Church and gym closings. No yoga classes for the next three Fridays. No in-person choral rehearsals on Tuesdays with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus until April 5. We’ll try singing via telecommuting. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of its season to no earlier than mid-May. That’s the least of our problems, though we would welcome the late-arriving national pastime.

Of course, these are all sound decisions. Life and death decisions. Declarations to hunker down and distance ourselves–groups of less than ten only please–as more than ten “leaders” stand in two rows in front of common microphones.  A plunging Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped another 3,000 points before the bell finally rang today.

What does it all mean? We’re told the worst is yet to come. This feels awful enough. Indeed, most Americans would prefer to forget March 16, 2020. But we’d better remember it when we vote in our general election in November.

***

Better news later in the afternoon here in the desert. A ray of natural beauty appeared outside our front door. Hopefully, a hand-delivered harbinger of love. Delivered by the month of March.

The ice plant bloometh.