Tag: Storytelling

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.

 

Gone But Still Giving

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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 have no doubt Helen is smiling.

 

Three Writers and a Birthday

S & G Ferrell in 1930s

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.

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March On

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Retreat from impending pandemics, pundit prognostications and presidential prattle. Play in the garden. Greet the grace of nature. Gaze at gliding coyotes and giant cardons. Grant Sunday succulents a proper home. Gather and savor southern-facing light. Stand tall and shine in the darkness. Apply aloe. Ease the pain. March on.