A Poem for New Year’s Day

Professional Southerner

Sometime in the ’90s I decided that trying to have fun and frivolity in a crowd of intoxicated people on New Year’s Eve was a fool’s errand. Instead, I stay home on New Year’s Eve and invite friends over for a hearty lunch of Southern good luck staples on New Year’s Day. The menu changes, but it always involves pork, greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread, and an ambrosia.

On New Year’s Day of 2014, instead of a traditional toast, I decided to launch the meal with a favorite poem by American poet Richard Tillinghast, who is from Memphis but has lived in Ireland for many years. I think “Table” is a fitting way to launch a new year full of hope and possibilities. For New Year’s Day 2015, I want to share it with you. May your table be full and steady. Happy New Year.


Table
by Richard Tillinghast      from the…

View original post 221 more words

Capote’s “A Christmas Memory”

On this Christmas morning, as I walked across frozen ground to refill the bird feeder, I was reminded of Truman Capote’s autobiographical short story, “A Christmas Memory,” and his elderly child-like cousin’s declaration of “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather.” This is the start of an annual Depression-era adventure in which the boy and his cousin count their change and set out to buy the ingredients for thirty-one fruitcakes – including moonshine whiskey from Mr. Haha Jones – with just shy of $13.

On this Christmas in central Alabama, we’re far beyond Sook Faulk’s frosty fruitcake weather as the past few days have stayed well below freezing. This is clearly not a big deal to our friends in Buffalo and locales north, suffering mightily under feet of snow, but some records were set here in Alabama and the thermometer crept only a couple of degrees above freezing on Christmas afternoon. That’s enough winter weather to last me for a good long while.

I re-read “A Christmas Memory” at the height of our current freeze and was struck again by the moving prose of a young Capote. My own memory was stirred to remember the Christmas of 2014 – the last Christmas my ailing father was able to spend at home.

On that Christmas Eve, Dad was resting in bed and Mother and I had finished most of our last-minute preparations for the next day. I retired to a bedroom and started reading “Á Christmas Memory.” When I came to the part where the narrator describes his cousin’s reaction to chocolate-covered cherries – “I could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could – and that’s not taking His name in vain” – I glanced at the clock, saw that it was 5:40, and threw on a coat, telling Mother that I had to go out for a last-minute errand.

Dad loved chocolate-covered cherries, the cheap kind that you always find on drug store shelves in the Christmas season. His love for the sweets was well-known and over the years friends would gift him a box at Christmastime. He appreciated the home-made chocolate-covered cherry mice that my sister-in-law and nephew would bring; I tried to up the ante with annual boxes of the fancier chocolate-covered cherries ordered from the Harry and David catalog, but it was clear that Dad preferred the gooier, less expensive Queen Anne brand from a drugstore shelf.

By 2014, many of those friends who could always be depended on to send over a box of chocolate-covered cherries were themselves ailing, or gone, and Sook’s declaration reminded me that there were no boxes for Dad on Christmas Day. I rushed into the closest pharmacy just minutes before its Christmas Eve closing time of 6:00 p.m., grabbed a box of chocolate-covered cherries, went back to the house, and placed the box under the tree.

_________________________________________

Late in Truman Capote’s life, I attended a reading he gave at the University of Alabama. The selections were a sample of writings from his career, delivered in that simpering manner that was always his trademark. He ended with “A Christmas Memory.” Finally, gone were the affectations and snarling attitude Capote was famous for, replaced by a middle-aged man’s simple recitation of an authentic cherished memory. That performance has become a cherished memory for me, too.

__________________________________________

A few days before Christmas this year, I stopped at a drugstore to pick up a prescription. As I was getting out of the car, Mother said, “If you see a box of chocolate-covered cherries, get them.”

“Why?” I asked. “You don’t eat them and neither do I.”

“Just for old times’ sake,” she said.

As we pulled away from the drugstore, Mother asked, “Do we have time to go by the cemetery?”

We headed a few miles to Elmwood and to my father’s grave, decorated already with Christmas greenery and a University of Alabama flag. As we sat in the car, Mother said, “Let’s put the chocolates at his grave.”

Done.

Sense | Memory

Grand Hotel Sunset, December 2022

Point Clear, Alabama. Alabama State Route 225 in Baldwin County connects the towns of Stockton and Spanish Fort. On my annual trip to the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, just south of Fairhope, I leave I-65 to travel 225 to its southern terminus at U.S. 31. Just before arriving in Spanish Fort, there is a bridge at a fish camp and, if one looks to the right across the brackish waters that mark the start of Mobile Bay, the Mobile skyline appears – dream-like and fuzzy in the distance on a foggy day.

Sense memory is an acting technique that I taught through the years. It basically requires the actor to store up personal emotions that can be triggered to create an authentic emotional response onstage. I have taken this trip to Point Clear so many times that I have sensory triggers practically every mile of the way. I have written about this trip so many times that I realize there’s not much else to say. I have documented the sights and smells, the sunsets and fog horns, flora and fauna, my favorite culinary haunts (food memory is a very powerful tool), the churches and vernacular architecture to the point that the archived essays pretty much tell the story.

I started making this annual escape to Mobile Bay in 2003. In 2004, the resort was still recovering from Hurricane Ivan and services were severely curtailed. The property was closed in 2005 in the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the COVID pandemic forced me to regretfully cancel my 2020 reservation. This year’s trip was iffy due to personal demands, but family members rallied to the cause and I was able to make the trip.

I suspect that if I had started coming here when I was younger, I would have found the place a little staid and boring. But coming here at a time when I craved a respite and a more relaxing pace made me a fan forever and I will probably continue the December tradition for as long as I am able.

It has become a standing tradition that never gets old, providing memories that see me through challenging days. When I was teaching, I would have to sit through endless faculty meetings and faculty-staff convocations – ask almost any teacher and you’ll learn that faculty meetings are the worst thing about the job. At one particularly grueling convocation, as the university president was droning on with an acrostic, a colleague leaned to me and said, “How are you staying so calm and content during this?” I leaned back to her and said, “Oh, I’m replaying my last trip to Point Clear and just got to the warm stone massage. I haven’t heard a word he’s saying.”

A college friend, tiring of my natural skepticism, once demanded, “I insist that you become sentimental.” He didn’t realize that I harbored sentiment all along – the skeptical cynic I presented myself as was, I’m sure, a defense mechanism, forged in my teenage years when I was the perennial “new kid” in a succession of schools. A school bully in Nashville, impressed, I guess, by my riposte to an insult he hurled, warned me that I was a “small man with a big voice” and that I better watch out as that mouth would get me in a lot of trouble one day. My dad gave me the same warning back then. He didn’t realize what the Nashville bully did – the smart mouth was there to waylay abuse.

I wonder if people who knew me back then remember the cynicism I used to affect and if that’s how they think I’ve turned out (if they even remember me). I was hosting a small get-together at an apartment in another city many years ago and remember overhearing someone who knew me in my college days tell another guest, who had complimented my apartment, that “You should’ve seen where he lived while he was in grad school – it was a dump.”

She was right. But I wonder if people who haven’t seen me since grad school envision me still living in a hovel in some student ghetto somewhere.

My reflective driving soundtrack on this holiday trip is always George Winston’s classic piano solo recording, December. I only listen to it in its titular month – another sentimental habit stretching back over decades, and it inevitably conjures a memory of a cold December midnight, sitting on a dock in New London, Connecticut. It had been a challenging day on a theatre tour of A Christmas Carol; we had to let a technician go that day and I needed a chilly late-night walk and George Winston’s calming music to fortify myself for the next days to come.

These are some of the memories that come to me every December on my trip to Point Clear. The Grand Hotel was an aspirational goal for me when I first heard about it as a teenager from a neighbor in Jackson, Mississippi. She and her husband had been there for a business conference and her photographs of the place were spectacular. I vowed to go there one day, but I never envisioned its necessity in my life.

It’s a place where I still feel compelled to dress for dinner, even though the dress code has loosened and almost anything goes. That hovel-dwelling cynic that some may remember from my college days would have sneered at the idea of being required to dress up for dinner, and probably would have avoided any place that enforced a code. More recently, however, having dinner at Arnaud’s in New Orleans, I bristled when a party came in with one of their number wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts; they let him in and I was appalled.

So, I still dress for dinner (but, alas, no tie) at the Grand’s fine Southern Roots dining room as a sign of respect and as a nod to the tradition of a resort that has existed in this same spot on Mobile Bay for 175 years.  When I first started coming to the Grand, each room still had a valet stand – a handy piece of furniture for setting out your day’s wardrobe. I used it even if it was just for jeans, a tee-shirt, and sneakers, and I miss it in these spiffily updated rooms now. A piece of furniture called a “valet stand” – these are the kinds of things that those who never learned cursive writing will never even know to miss. But it’s their loss, I reckon.

This trip is so tradition-bound for me that I always stay in the same room in the spa building. When I arrived at my building a few days ago, I unwittingly parked next to a couple misbehaving in a Corvette in the parking deck under the building. I noticed and then made a great effort not to look their way as I unloaded the car. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed a different state of deshabille each time I returned to gather my things from the car. On my last trip down, they were walking toward me in the corridor on my floor. I glanced back as I turned the corner, hoping that they would not be in the room next to mine. To my relief, they continued down the hallway past my room. On the elevator down, I wondered If they had a room, why were they compelled to utilize the Corvette for playtime?

I’ll never know, but that’s one memory of this place that I’d rather not trigger in the future.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Christmas at the Grand

Notes from Waning Days

“… if someone knocks on your door, invite them in, and it’ll be Christmas.” – Garrison Keillor

It’s December already and I spent the month of November trying to write an essay that never quite happened. Opening the blinds on this first weekend morning of the new month, the sky is a pastel and hazy blue and the sun is shining intermittently. A gentle breeze animates the chimes as seven mourning doves line the fence waiting for a turn at a bird feeder. Some hesitant leaves still remain on trees, although the Rose of Sharon finally shed its last leaf and its barren limbs reveal abandoned bird nests that we never knew were there. A cardinal perches in a tree above the doves, awaiting a free space at the feeder, where the bird seed is damp, but still edible, apparently. I’ll replenish it in a while.

Earlier in the week, we went to the cemetery to exchange fall decorations for Christmas at the grave of my father and other family. My father’s parents and his brother who was killed in the Korean Conflict are buried across the sprawling urban cemetery from my dad. Just down from their graves is the grave of a Union soldier who fought for the 27th Massachusetts Infantry in the Civil War before this city even existed.

Based on the marker, James Wallace served in the war as a young man and died and was buried in Birmingham in 1933. The ground under his stone has sunk; I tried to reset the stone for years. Now, I’ve given up and it lies on the ground, but we always keep a fresh American flag there, a habit begun by my brother years ago.

I’m afraid the waning daylight hours of autumn dampen my spirits – I’m a warm weather, long days guy – but the holidays provide an effort and energy that help to sustain me. And I know that by the time winter and Christmas come, the daylight will slowly, minute by minute, begin to extend on its trudge to spring.

Little things brighten the days. While shopping for my Christmas wreath at a favorite garden shop, a group was busily working to decorate trees for the shop’s Christmas decoration and delivery service. The infectious beats of Latin urbano music, mixed with animated chatter and frequent laughter, couldn’t help but bring a smile.

My Christmas cards went out right on schedule and my annual escape to Mobile Bay for a few days of rest is scheduled for a week from now. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that circumstances will permit me to go.

I’ve written about my Christmas card ritual for many years. The photo of a historic Alabama church – usually rural, wooden, and white – has been the standard for my cards for a couple of decades now. I suspect there are some, who don’t pay a lot of attention, who might think that I send the exact same card every year, but for those who care, I know it’s appreciated.

A few times I have tried to bend the tradition a little. I sent a card with a live oak one year, with a dock on Mobile Bay another (maybe my favorite of all my photos), and, once, with the ornate interior of a cathedral. Each time, I got feedback along the lines of The card was nice but I prefer your little white country churches.

This year’s card has an interesting backstory. On my first morning of retreat in Baldwin County in December of ’21, I went looking for historic churches to photograph. On the way back to the hotel from Swift Presbyterian Church near Foley, my car suddenly sent up alarms and ran hot. After a call to AAA and a tow to a mechanic, I had to take a half hour cab ride through the Baldwin County countryside to the hotel and wait until the next day to take the hotel shuttle to Foley to pick up my car. The shuttle driver turned out to be an actor and we ended up talking about movies on the drive back to the garage; the shuttle drive seemed much shorter than the previous day’s cab ride.

Swift Presbyterian Church

So this year’s card will always make me recall a challenging day that turned out fine. This year has been a challenge, too, but there’s hope that it will all turn out fine.

So we beat on …

Thornton Dial: “I, Too, Am Alabama”

“Antioch” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Alabama,” an eye-opening retrospective of the transcendent art of Thornton Dial, is currently on-view at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts on the UAB campus in Birmingham. Thornton Dial (1928-2016) is often lumped with groups of artists referred to as “outsider,” “self-taught,” “primitive,” or “folk” artists. The Abroms-Engel exhibition prefers the label “vernacular artist” and clarifies that Dial’s artistry holds its own with mid- to late 20th-early 21st century contemporary artists of many styles.

Over the years, I have usually viewed Dial’s art alongside other of his contemporaries in the vernacular art movement. His importance was clear in those earlier shows but walking into large galleries surrounded by nothing but Thornton Dial’s work in a variety of media makes it clear just how significant his artistic vision is.

An Alabama native, Dial was born in Sumter County and spent most of his life in Bessemer, outside Birmingham. He worked as a metalworker at Bessemer’s Pullman-Standard plant until it closed in 1981, after which he focused on his artistic output. Dial’s first solo art exhibit was in New York in 1993 and marked the beginning of his rise to recognition in the art world.

“How Things Work: The Parade of Life” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Alabama” derives its title from the Langston Hughes poem “I, Too” and its famous final line, “I, too, am America.” In the current show at Abroms-Engel, the curators, Paul Barrett, assisted by Tina Ruggieri, have assembled a large collection of Dial works from various sources and in various styles. Large hanging works are dominant, but there are sculptures, works on paper, and smaller works scattered throughout the exhibit.

Most of Dial’s work, and something he has in common with other vernacular artists, consists of elements of assemblage. His incorporation of found objects includes toys, metals, cloth, plastics, shoes, gloves, tree branches, gravel, rope, carpet, soda bottles, hickory nuts, and myriad other objects. I think that one of the elements that makes this work most striking to me is that these found objects are most often embedded within layers of paints – enamels, spray paints, oils. These painted coatings transform the artworks from found to finished.

“Fairfield” – Thornton Dial

In “Fairfield,” for example, a found patchwork quilt is merged onto a canvas, flanked by two shadowy quilters, one of whom looks squarely at the viewer. “Separation,” a muted abstraction, is beautiful to gaze upon as other, smaller, suggestions of words and images appear among its various fragments. The complexity of works like “Nobody Know What Go on Behind the Jungle” and “How Things Work: The Parade of Life” demands extended and repeat viewing and, still, obscured images emerge each time.

Dial’s work addresses social issues and history, especially the history of Blackness, civil rights, and the concept of otherness in the United States. His recurring motif of the tiger is a symbol of survival. The viewer must ponder these works to find intrinsic messages. With Dial, an agenda never supersedes his artistic agency; these are, first and foremost, masterful creations of an assured individual vision.

“Separation” – Thornton Dial

“Nobody Know What Go On Beyond the Jungle” – Thornton Dial

“I, Too, Am Thornton Dial” will be on view at Abroms-Engel until December 10. A companion show of Dial’s works on paper is at Samford University’s School of the Arts Gallery through December 2.

Latest Reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum

Two of my recent book reviews are now available for viewing at Alabama Writers’ Forum. The Gold-Plated Scarab and Other Stories is a lovely collection of short stories by Norman McMillan and More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver is Edith Powell’s book about a lesser-known collaboration in the scientist George Washington Carver’s storied career.

While you’re there, check out all of the other reviews and the newly renovated Alabama Writers’ Forum website:  https://www.writersforum.org

The Gold-Plated Scarab & Other Stories

More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver

Rhapsody in Rust

Marc Steel

Driving east on Sixth Avenue South in Titusville toward downtown, the abandoned Marc Steel complex is on the left just before the railroad underpass which marks the entrance into Birmingham’s expansive Southside. This abandoned industrial site has teased my imagination for a long time. Marc Steel was an industrial steel fabricator from the late 19th Century, when steel was the backbone – figuratively and literally – of Birmingham and the surrounding area.

Perhaps it is because I spent a childhood in Birmingham when the steel mills were still in full operation that the rusting remnants of that time have an enduring imaginative pull for me. I keep an eye out for industrial decay that, for me, has the same power and dignity of ancient relics. I can imagine a time when these places had purpose, when the lives of the locals were dependent on them; I can remember a time when the night sky would blaze orange and gold as molten metal was poured at the foundries.

Marc Steel

Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is the grande dame of Birmingham industrial sites but the aesthetics of the Marc Steel structure – its silhouette, those massive windows, the rusting – have their own complex beauty. I understand that inside the Marc Steel buildings there is a trove of graffiti. Ideas are currently being solicited for renovation and the best uses for the property and the idea of affordable housing is being discussed. I wish them the best. The Marc Steel property cannot continue to deteriorate indefinitely; its restoration and renovation are essential. But, to me, it is magnificent in its decay (www.themarcsteel.com).

 

 

Fetch

When Railroad Park opened in 2010 next to the railroad tracks that split the north side from the south side of Birmingham’s central city, there wasn’t much else happening in the immediate area. Regions Field, home of Barons baseball, came soon after and the Parkside area now teems with entertainment, business, and residential options in new and converted spaces.  Railroad Park quickly earned its designation as “Birmingham’s Living Room” (www.railroadpark.org).

Fetch

Among the more interesting recent additions to Parkside is a new Birmingham hub for Fetch Rewards. The rusty panels on the building’s facade create a striking patchwork on a contemporary structure. The design was an unexpected find in my passion for rust. The first time I happened to catch a glimpse of the building out of the corner of my eye, I remember thinking wait, what? and parking the car to examine the find.

 

Another addition to my inventory of Birmingham rust is a brand-new entertainment nook in Avondale, nestled – once again – next to railroad tracks just down the street from the main Avondale business district. Elysian Gardens is the vision of artist William Colburn Jr., whose metalwork and whimsical sculptures adorn the location. Colburn’s metal flowers are his best-known works; I received one of Colburn’s fierce Venus Flytraps as a present not that long ago. His patinated flora is generously placed throughout the comfortable outdoor space which houses a bar, two restaurant spaces, and a stage suitable for a variety of performances.

Elysian Gardens

A particular charm of Elysian Gardens is that it enables its patrons to sit and wander among the sculpture. Colburn has fabricated butterfly-back chairs and barstools and, on a recent Sunday afternoon, casual visitors came, went, and stayed for a spell.  If Railroad Park has become Birmingham’s living room, Elysian Gardens seems on the path to become a cozy family room for Avondale (www.elysiangardensbham.com).

Book Review: It Falls Gently All Around

Alabama Writers’ Forum has just posted my review of Ramona Reeves’s award-winning collection of short fiction, It Falls Gently All Around. The book was just published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Read the review here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/10/07/it-falls-gently-all-around-and-other-stories

Book Review: Yazoo Clay by Schuyler Dickson

My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is currently available on the AWF website. Dickson’s ambitious story collection is a co-winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award given annually by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. Read the review here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/09/14/yazoo-clay

Book Review: Homer Hickam’s New Memoir

My latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum is now available on their website. Fans of the book, Rocket Boys, and its movie adaptation, October Sky, will be interested in the further adventures of their protagonist.

Read it here:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2022/08/22/don-t-blow-yourself-up-the-further-true-adventures-and-travails-of-the-rocket-boy-of-october-sky