Days of Exile


In the early 1800s, a group of French settlers who had arrived in Philadelphia invested in tracts of land in the Alabama wilderness at the confluence of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers near present-day Demopolis, a part of the Black Belt still referred to as the “Canebrake.”

Popular lore characterizes the settlers as exiled Bonapartist soldiers; in fact, a few had served under Napoleon, others had fled the Haitian Revolution, and some were not French at all. The pioneers were drawn by the false information that the area was ideal for the cultivation of olive trees and wine grapes, like their homeland. It didn’t take long for them to realize the falsity of that premise and, in a short time, most of the settlers moved on.

In late-summer of 2017, I wrote an essay, “The Vine and Olive Colony,” about artist Julyan Davis and his series of paintings inspired by those French settlers. Julyan chose the historical figure Madame Raoul, Marchioness of Sinabaldi, as his focus.

Painting by Julyan Davis at Lyon Hall, Demopolis

Julyan Davis, his paintings, and his Demopolis connection are featured in “Days of Exile,” a beautiful short film by David Poag. A Demopolis premiere was planned for April; because of the current health crisis, the Demopolis screening is on hold and the film has been released online. Davis’s paintings are stunning and evocative; Poag’s direction and editing are spectacular. Here’s the link:

Julyan Davis’s initial interest in the Vine and Olive Colony started in England when he read Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama (1934), a creative account of New Yorker Carmer’s sojourn in Alabama as a professor at the University of Alabama in the 1920s. This inspired Davis’s first trip to Alabama in the 1980s. He has painted the American South for over thirty years now.

“Days of Exile,” the title of Poag’s film, is inspired by a book of that name, Days of Exile (1967), by Winston Smith. Dr. Smith was one of my English professors at the University of Alabama but I was not aware of this book until the Poag film. Out of curiosity, I ordered a copy of the out-of-print book after viewing the film. Smith’s account, while not as dramatic as the events of the Carmer book, is a well-researched dissertation, full of details and facts and official records detailing the events that have such an enduring impact on Julyan Davis’s art and on the Alabama Canebrake of today.

The Panic of Cardinals

At the end of February, as friends and I left a late performance at Louisville’s Kentucky International Convention Center, we were stunned by the appearance of a bright red cardinal, trapped in the gigantic convention hall. He was clearly in panic, flying frantically back and forth along the massive third floor concourse where, as far as we could tell, there were no clear openings to the outside. Others gathered to watch the bird in frenetic flight. All of us cheered him on.

At dinner the next night, other friends spoke of seeing a female cardinal trying to find an escape from the same place the next morning.

Cardinals, you know, mate for life.

I find myself worrying about those desperate cardinals each morning when I awaken. I hope they found escape; I worry that they did not.

Tradition from many cultures tells us that a cardinal sighting is the visitation of the spirit of a loved one, letting us know that we are being heard and watched over.

At the time, my friends and I didn’t suspect that the theatre convention would be our last opportunity to be around people, business, and social events for who knows how long.

This current international health crisis, frankly, has me flummoxed. I try to find comparisons. Most recently, for my part of the world, there were “After the tornadoes” (2011), “After the BP Oil Spill” (2010), “After Katrina” (2005), and “After 9/11” (2011). But all of those had the hope of an eventual “after” of some kind. This current crisis is so ill-defined, … so nebulous.

I find comfort, as always, in nature and the circle of life.

At my father’s graveside service after the funeral four years ago, one of my most distinct memories is the abundance of wisteria vines in full glory in the trees just beyond his gravesite. Today, as I drove through Alabama, I was stunned by the transient presence of wisteria wherever I gazed.

Today, at home, my Japanese pink cherry tree is starting its annual bloom. My neighbor’s white blossomed cherry is reaching its peak, and my crimson camellia, at last, has yielded a respectable bounty after two years. My grandfather’s legacy rose is thriving, as is the wild rose I harvested from a friend’s lakeside ten years ago. My redbud is stagnant, while redbuds bloom in profusion everywhere I look; this is its habit and I will trust it to sprout its heart-shaped leaves before long.

I’m afraid I tend to be a pessimist by nature. That increases my personal stress and tension in times such as these. I find myself drawn to less exuberant literature of my past. In these times, two titles that keep creeping into my consciousness are Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I re-read Death in Venice on my first extended visit into New Orleans after the Flood; it calmed and strengthened me.

I heard a recent interview with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts; he spoke of how the current crisis is making him more aware of nature. He comments that on a walk with his son, “I heard the sound of a squirrel’s claws as he climbed a tree – as stressful as this time is, it gives us time to reflect.”

When Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” in 1732, I have no doubt his specific choice of verb was intentional.

At dusk a couple of days ago, as I drove along the crest of Shades Mountain, two cardinals – a male and a female – flew up out of the sunset from the ridge and directly into my path. I braked, but they were already clear. The pair skimmed the surface and flew into the darkening woods. I watched them fly up through the trees and disappear.

It’s enough to make a man superstitious.


Everything that’s going on now is causing me a lot of stress — from online instruction, to parental care, to day-to-day activity, to taking care of oneself. When I got home tonight, my camellia bush — which has been a dud since I planted it two years ago — suddenly had burst forth. I choose to see this as a sign of hope.

Take care of yourself. We’ll meet up on the other side.

Deeper into Louisville

The first time I attended a Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) convention, I was stage managing a production of Side by Side by Sondheim. It was 1983 and the convention was in Tampa. I have attended the conference most years since, as a student, a job seeker, a producer, director and casting director, a faculty recruiter, a workshop presenter, a panelist, and, lately, an editorial board member for Southern Theatre magazine.

2020 was at least my fourth time to attend an SETC in Louisville. Whether I’m in town for a work-related event or a stopover, it has always seemed like a good city that I’d like to have more time to explore. In the past, SETC and other trips have been based more around the Galt House, a sprawling convention hotel on the Ohio River, and my activities were typically confined to the Galt complex and that immediate area of Main Street, where I always seemed to have a great view looking west onto the Ohio River.

This year, the convention was held at the Kentucky International Convention Center, a few blocks deeper into the central business district and farther from the river. My hotel directly connected to the center. I missed the quirky style of the Galt House, but had a better opportunity to explore the scene a few blocks from Main Street during convention breaks.

Whenever I am in Louisville, I make sure to set a time to get together with my friend, Kimberly. Kimberly, a Louisville native, and I have a long-standing tradition of talking on the phone on Derby Day; she usually calls just before the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

On this visit, Kimberly was anxious to introduce me to the Rathskeller in the basement of the Seelbach Hotel and we were both disappointed that it is closed, open only for special events nowadays. With the Rathskeller unavailable, we were redirected to the Old Seelbach Bar for a nice meal and a sense of gracious old Louisville. F. Scott Fitzgerald makes a sideways reference to the Seelbach Hotel in The Great Gatsby as the “Muhlbach,” a Louisville hotel that hosted the Buchanan’s elaborate wedding party. The meal, service, and reserved sophistication of the place honor its storied history.

It is an SETC tradition for four friends and me to gather at a restaurant in the host city on the final night to celebrate the conclusion of another successful convention, and mostly to celebrate many years of continuing friendship. It’s a perfect way to unwind, catch up, and prepare for the travel day ahead. I am happy to take on the responsibility of choosing the location for the feast.

It didn’t take long for me to settle on this year’s venue. Proof on Main is the restaurant in Louisville’s 21C Museum Hotel. Louisville was the first location of the 21C Hotel group, which will soon have close to a dozen museum hotels nationally. Each hotel encompasses a contemporary art museum and a restaurant and the art flows freely, intersecting with guest spaces, bar and restaurant spaces, public spaces, … even the restrooms. The 21C hotels collectively hold one of the world’s most significant collections of art of the 21st Century and each has rotating exhibits as well as permanent holdings. Since it’s part of a hotel, the museum is accessible 24-hours daily.

“Guapisimas” (2004) by Pepe Lopez

The Louisville location’s Main Street corner is presided over by a humongous gold statue, “David (inspired by Michelangelo),” by Turkish artist Serkan Ozkaya, attracting much gawking amid the pristine Victorian cast iron facades which dominate the street. The serious collection of contemporary art is tempered by such whimsy and by a stretch limo sitting outside the restaurant, completely covered in blue-grey marbles. “Red Penguin,” by the Cracking Art Group of Italy, is 21C’s mascot, and those striking creatures are scattered throughout the facility.

On our visit, the west coast artist duo known as “Fallen Fruit” had filled the bar and each dining room of Proof on Main with an intriguing and bold installation featuring found objects and bespoke wallpaper inspired by the artists’ impressions of Louisville. Alice Gray Stiles, 21C’s Museum Director, writes that

Fallen Fruit’s immersion into the people and places that shape community reveals a universal, defining aspect of the human condition, hunger—to be fed, to be seen, to belong, to be loved. The persistence of these desires fosters the continuity of ritual: the practices of everyday life don’t really change—we eat, drink, we talk, we congregate and celebrate in ways that would be recognizable to our forbears at least a century ago, and these acts retain meaning and promise.

The current main exhibit in the museum is “Labor&Materials,” a multi-media exploration of the concepts and ramifications of global 21st Century industry. There are many messages and global concerns addressed in the expansive exhibition, but agenda does not overwhelm agency and there is much aesthetic beauty to relish.

“Cloud Rings” (2006) by Ned Kahn

My favorite piece in the museum, however, was a permanent installation in an outdoor sunken courtyard. “Cloud Rings” (2006), by environmental artist Ned Kahn, is a grouping of three cauldron-like vessels that constantly shoot rings of fog. The clouds are ever-changing based on the wind and humidity – visible from a large window inside the gallery as well as from street level. The continuous action is mesmerizing.

The inventive kitchen at Proof on Main, overseen by Executive Chef Jonathan Searle, is equal to its heady environment, serving locally-sourced and inventive dishes in a comfortably charged atmosphere with a superior wait staff. Our table ordered from a variety of dishes ranging from bison to trout. One of our group, Russell, observing what is this Saturday group’s standing tradition, treated each of us to Brandy Alexanders at the end of the meal. A final whimsical epilogue for the meal was when our server brought a plate of pink cotton candy along with the checks.

The next day, on the way out of town, Churchill Downs beckoned. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, as much as I love the tradition of the Kentucky Derby, I had never gone out to see Churchill Downs.

A short exit off I-65 South and I was there. I chose not to go inside the museum and take the tour this time, but I was determined – despite construction blockades and locked gates – to spot the iconic twin spires from the trackside. After much maneuvering, I finally got to a nice view of the spires and one step closer, perhaps, to eventually watching the Derby from the stands.


My next-door neighbor died a couple of weeks ago. She was a good and thoughtful neighbor, an attorney in her mid-40s, and, as far as I know, her death was totally unexpected. The first two people who informed me said she “passed” and, frankly, as a teacher, that word sounds too much like a grading assessment. Jennifer did “pass,” I guess; unfortunately, she also died.

Jennifer knew my interest in Mobile, New Orleans, and Mardi Gras. In fact, I created a travel guide for her very first trip to New Orleans and loaned her some books about the city to get her prepared and in the mood. New Orleans was a perfect match for her; she loved things bright and cheerful and frou frou and her cozy back yard had decorations and light displays for every season.

I used to throw a Joe Cain Day party on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday. The Joe Cain Day parade is a uniquely Mobile celebration open to all participants – the “people’s parade.” A few years ago, a few days before Joe Cain Day, I drove in from work to find a big fluffy festive Mardi Gras wreath hanging on my back gate. I knew immediately where it came from.

I moved the wreath to the front door, where it remained until midnight on Fat Tuesday.

The next year, a couple of weeks before Fat Tuesday, I hung the wreath back on the door. The next day it was gone. Left in its place was a note from Jennifer letting me know that she had some ideas for improvement and was taking the wreath for an update. It was back on the door a couple of days later – replete with even more beads and embedded masks.

This year, I hung the wreath on a Tuesday night two weeks before Mardi Gras. Jennifer died the next day. The wreath will now have a deeper meaning when I hang it in years to come.

I gauge impending spring by the trees that bloom in the front yards of the row of prim townhouses where I live. A decade ago, I planted ninety crocus bulbs in my front yard with the plan that they would be the first blossoms to herald the spring season. Next would be Jennifer’s front-yard crabapple tree, followed by the huge spreading white cherry blossoms in her back yard, that hang gracefully over my back fence. Finally, my pink cherry blossoms would burst forth in my front yard. By that time, the dogwoods and redbuds and glories of spring would be ready to go.

The crocuses scattered in my front yard seem to have petered out over the past couple of years so the big harbinger of spring in front of the house has been Jennifer’s crabapple tree. It’s a tall, gangly thing. Several people who have worked on my yard have offered to chop it down for free. Indeed, it had a lot of dead branches on it but Jennifer wouldn’t hear of losing it. One Saturday several years ago, her dad and I managed to trim a lot of the dead off and the tree has shaped up fairly nicely since.

It’s still not a beauty, except for those couple of weeks in the late winter when its deep purplish blossoms burst forth.

Last year, Jennifer, who did most of her coming and going through the back of her house, commented to me that she had completely missed the crabapple blooming because she had been so tied up with business, personal, and other things and had not even looked in the front yard.

I assured her that the show of blooms had been particularly beautiful and promised to alert her when the tree started to bloom this year.

Jennifer’s funeral last week took place on a dreary rainy Tuesday. The next day, as I opened my bedroom curtains just after sunrise, was bright and sunny. I glanced over at Jennifer’s crabapple and saw the first blossoms high in the top of the sun-dappled tree.

Winter will pass. Happy Mardi Gras.


In the early ‘80s, I regularly took the Southern Crescent from Tuscaloosa down to New Orleans for a weekend or a few days. The price was reasonable, the ride was scenic, and I had places to stay. I was usually on my own on those trips, and it was then that I learned my way around what is still one of my favorite places to be.

Early one summer morning, I hopped on the streetcar at Napoleon heading to the CBD. When the streetcar stopped at Foucher, a poised and well-appointed young woman boarded. She wore a stylish belted summer dress and had a tote slung over one shoulder. She took a seat a couple of rows in front of me. She mostly looked straight ahead, but occasionally she looked out the window at the passing street scene as the breeze gently blew her chestnut hair. I was entranced by her calm and effortless grace and frequently glanced in her direction.

We both got off the streetcar at Canal Street and walked our separate ways. And that was that.

The next day, I was cooling off in the late lamented Maison Blanche flagship store on Canal Street. As I passed the fragrance counter, I spotted my streetcar crush, tester aloft, sampling fragrances with a customer. She had the same relaxed and focused grace as on the previous day. I watched for a moment and considered possible conversation starters.

Then I moved on and the young woman became a memory.

That memory has been nurtured for forty years now. Back then, I used it as the start of a short story that never found its end; it might be stored away in some box in a closet somewhere. I’ll never know how accurate the memory is to the actual event.

But I have been thinking about memory lately and a lot.

I finally saw Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, a couple of days ago. I always enjoy that audacious Spanish director’s work and was anxious to see this frankly autobiographical film from a master who is entering his 70s.

Almodovar is the force who launched the careers of the young Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, among others. Both Banderas and Cruz have rejoined their mentor and play pivotal roles in this latest film. Banderas is the main character, Salvador, and Cruz is his mother, Jacinta. Cruz is radiant, but it is the aging Banderas who mesmerizes with his stooped gait and desperate gaze.

In an early scene of memory, the village women of Salvador’s childhood wash the laundry in a creek bed. As they finish the wash, they break into jubilant song as they drape the laundry over the bushes to dry. The film shifts from such beautiful memory to scenes of the aging Salvador in a heroin stupor, trying to find relief from his pain, … trying to find release.

Almodovar explores the challenges of an artist who might have passed his peak and celebrates the memories that nurture him in his emotional ebb and flow. These memories inspire the artist and, in a quietly triumphant finale, bring his artistic energy back to life.

In a recent interview, author Haruki Murakami speaks of memory.

When I was in high school, I passed a girl in the hallway, a girl whose name I didn’t know, who was clutching a copy of “With the Beatles” to her as if it were something precious. That scene was etched in my mind and became a symbol, for me, of adolescence. Sometimes scraps of memory like that can be the trigger that brings a story into being.

“Symbols,” Murakami says, “don’t age, aren’t full of contradictions, and probably don’t disappoint anyone.”

At the 2020 Academy Awards, when Bong Joon Ho received the Best Director award for Parasite, he quoted Martin Scorsese: “The most personal is the most creative.”

It is such personal memory that provides sustenance in the bleak periods of the soul. It is memory that makes this life bearable when the inevitable setbacks occur. The young woman on the streetcar is probably about the same age as me now. I wonder what became of her. Where is she now? I hope she has had a good life to this point.

And I wonder what memories inspire her.


  Each morning, the sun rises over Green Mountain to my east. Upon waking, I go and look out my bedroom window to gauge the coming day. This morning was stunning. Temperatures dipped below freezing overnight, frost was on the ground and rooftops, and a thick fog obscured the half disk of sunlight peeking over the mountain, ivory through grey mist. The whole world had a silver fringe.

My first impulse was to delay getting ready for work, to go back to bed, and to read a few more pages of Proust. I read a paragraph that was close to three dense pages long and decided it was time to put the book away and meet the promising day ahead.

By the time I returned home, from work, the sky was a clear blue, the sun was low on the horizon on the other side of the house, and Green Mountain was clearly visible through the second-floor windows as I stole time to read a few more pages of my book. As I finished, a half moon was newly visible and Venus was the brightest light amid the emerging stars.

I wrote in summer 2018 that I was tackling an English translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (translated as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), the daunting seven-volume 20th-Century French masterpiece that has been called the literary Mount Everest (“Climbing Mount Proust”). My incentive for reading the novel was my fondness for the “madeleine passage,” in which the taste of a madeleine pastry dipped in tea brings forth a flood of childhood memories for the novel’s narrator. I have evoked that passage so many times over the years that I finally felt guilty that I had not read most of the 3400-plus pages that surround it.

I didn’t plan to write any more essays about Proust’s book until I finish, but I feel a need to report that I’m still at it. In December, I peaked the summit; now, perhaps, I am well into the downhill slide. I’m hoping to eventually be one of the relative few to have finished the task. I was reading through one of the volumes before a faculty meeting a few weeks ago when an English professor asked me what I was reading. She shuddered, “I would never!” when I told her; she laughed, and I questioned my sanity for a moment.

I questioned my motives, too. Why am I spending such time and effort on a book that I probably won’t be able to discuss with others since I only know maybe a couple of people who have even tried to read it? What am I getting out of this beyond the personal satisfaction of a task completed? When I’m gone, what difference will it make that I read a dense and daunting book over the course of two or three years?

The truth is, I’m enjoying it. It’s a pleasant and eye-opening respite to travel back to a compulsively indulgent French comedy of manners and social satire from a century ago. Proust’s Narrator is not identified by name, but the author occasionally teases the reader with the insinuation that his Narrator is Marcel, something the reader assumes from the start.

The novel is a fever dream, laboriously exploring all ramifications of even the smallest and most nuanced event. Proust spends extensive pages describing the introductions of the Narrator into a salon, only to have the Narrator remind the reader that the events that he has examined in such detail, at such length, only comprise a few moments in time.

I am currently reading the fourth volume, “Cities of the Plain,” also translated “Sodom and Gomorrah,” in which the implicit becomes more explicit. Proust’s melding of time and transience is as potent as his manipulation of sense memory. The author’s voluptuous descriptions are often entertaining and very often outright funny. In discussing over-the-top praise for a simple bow, the Narrator considers how flattery often favors the gesture over the person who made it, concluding that “one indirectly reminds a servant who smells that the practice of taking a bath is beneficial to the health.”

My reading of Proust has prompted me to research and learn more about the Dreyfus Affair than I ever knew from history. The Dreyfus Affair and the anti-Semitism it embodies are often mentioned and divisive topics within the Narrator’s social circle. One’s acceptance or rejection in “society” might be based on one’s stance about that fin de siècle French scandal. One examines it today and finds parallels to other politics and other religious biases. One hesitates in its ramifications.

Most of all, my immersion into Proust feeds my ongoing interest in memory and the ways in which memory is formed. He writes

The images selected by memory are as arbitrary, as narrow, as elusive as those which the imagination had formed and reality has destroyed. There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than to those in our dreams.

I’m hooked. Pay homage to memory.