Category Archives: 2020 Pandemic

Shadows and Light

Shadow

There is a large quasi-Palladian window in the bedroom where I sleep at my parents’ house. Draperies cover the main window but the top arch is open. From the bed, I can see the stars, the clouds, and, frequently, the moon as it appears above Shades Mountain through the arch.

Just outside the window, a crape myrtle with rich burgundy blooms stands sentinel in the front yard. As I was going to sleep a couple of nights ago, I was struck by a silhouette on the bedroom wall opposite the window. A bright moon had cast a delicate shadow of the top branches of the crape myrtle. A gentle summer breeze was slightly blowing the branches and there was a lacy arched silhouette swaying against the bedroom wall. It relaxed me as I fell asleep.

Strangely enough, I started contemplating “Plato’s Cave.”

Plato’s “Republic,” from 380 B.C., includes an allegory about prisoners who have lived most of their lives in a cave, facing in only one direction toward the cave wall. Behind the prisoners is a fire and shadows of objects cast from the fire onto the cave wall are their only concept of “reality.” If they are ever able to escape from their cave of ignorance and see the true light, they tend to be distrustful and frightened of the true “reality” beyond their illusions.

It’s more complex than that, but that’s the gist. My political science degree must have kicked in one late night. I may just be excessively contemplative these days because I’m quarantined awaiting COVID test results. However, my night vision made me think about how we may be plagued just now with too many delusional cave dwellers in “leadership” positions and not enough seekers of enlightenment …

Mainly, though, I was struck by the beauty of a shadow on the wall as I sank into slumber a couple of nights ago.

Light

Notes from a Pensioner

On June 1, I will officially become a pensioner. Others might prefer to be called “retiree” or some other designation, but “pensioner” has an almost Dickensian flair and I think that will become my designation of choice.

My target date for retirement was always May 15, 2022. The incentive to bring it forward was the obvious – the pandemic and remote teaching. I pulled the trigger when there began to be intimations that we might continue remote teaching through the end of the year. On principle alone, I refuse to try to educate students and future artists in a manner that I feel is ineffective.

Mr. McKee, one of my neighbors, told me at the mailbox today that he was striving to be the person “who lived the longest on retirement.” “I plan to stretch it,” he said with a grin, “as far as I possibly can.” As far as I can determine, he has been retired for over thirty years now. I wish him success in his goal.


On a recent new episode of SNL, Kate McKinnon, playing the high school principal at a Zoom graduation, said, “The bad news is you’re about to pay full price for fancy colleges when they are all just University of Phoenix online with worse tech support.” That sums up my feelings exactly.

An entire generation of students, through no fault of their own, are becoming victims of home schooling and a tepid national response from a dangerous and delusional President, made worse by clueless governors desperate to jumpstart an economy regardless of the risks to citizens.


My favorite memory of actor/comedian Jerry Stiller, who passed away recently, is his enervated shrieking of “SERENITY NOW!” on a “Seinfeld” episode. Around that time, as the managing director of a beleaguered theatre, I had SERENITY NOW!!! posted at the top of my computer screen. It helped calm me, somehow. Or at least it made me laugh every morning.

A recent stream of “Hearts of Space” (https://v4.hos.com/home) – a program that is still, to my mind, the most brilliantly curated collection of contemplative music ever – was called “Deep Serenity.” I listened to it three times in one night. That helped, too.


Here’s what I did in my solitude after submitting some last-minute paperwork for the job:

This afternoon, I walked out to survey my front yard with plans to finally go to a garden center and jump start my long-delayed spring planting. As I walked back in the front door, I rang the doorbell to make sure it still works.

I made some watercress pesto. I’ve developed a pesto recipe featuring Alabama products including watercress, pecans, garlic and spring onions, peanut oil, and local goat cheese.

I saw an online headline that asked “Are you washing your sheets often enough?” and when I heard myself answer No out loud, I decided I should wash my sheets.

While my sheets were washing, I listened to American Fashion Podcasts featuring Florence, Alabama-based designers Natalie Chanin (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/the-alabama-chanin-story) and Billy Reid (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/229-billy-reid-an-icon-of-the-slow-fashion-movemen).

I am training myself to be satisfied with streaming movies, although I find that experience far from satisfactory. So far, I’m mostly watching documentaries. Two of my pet film festivals, Sidewalk in Birmingham (https://www.sidewalkfest.com) and the New Orleans Film Festival (https://neworleansfilmsociety.org/festival), are offering streaming films during the pandemic. When you stream one of their offerings, a portion of the fee goes back to the festival. I’m sure other film festivals are offering similar services. So far, I’ve watched documentaries about film critic Pauline Kael, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and New York Times street and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, and a few others, but those biographic profiles stand out.

I watched photographer Matthew Beck’s “Shelter in Place” (https://http://www.newyorker.com/…/watch-neighbors-connect-in-shelterin-place), a New Yorker documentary short. He shoots his neighbors from his apartment as they sit or stand in the windows of their own apartments and share their feelings about our current crisis. It is a loving and poignant summary of this current moment in human history.

During a large part of my adult life I have been alone but I have rarely felt lonely. As much as I want things to return to normal (and as much as I detest the phrase “new normal”!), I have been able to find peace in a stoic and patient solitude.

I suspect that I can wait this thing out without too much trauma. I hope more of us find that they can, too. The relief of being a “pensioner” is, in fact, bringing some serenity, now.

The Triumphs of April

In 1922, T.S. Eliot began his monumental modern poem “The Waste Land” with the words “April is the cruelest month.” Eliot, of course, was not looking ahead to our pandemic a century later, but his words resonate with me during this epic and alarmingly cruel month of April 2020.

“The Waste Land” contains exhaustive literary allusions. It is generally agreed that Eliot’s opening was a somber response to the opening lines of Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales”: “When that April with his showers sweet / The drought of March hath pierced to the root …” It’s probably also worth mentioning that Eliot was in an unhappy marriage and suffered from severe depression.

Eliot, who lived his life in climates more northerly than my Alabama, was most directly evoking the struggle of plants to come forth from the frozen ground of a winter recently passed. He was writing soon after the end of World War I – “the war to end all wars,” they thought – and, even more recently for him, the 1918-20 flu pandemic, which claimed anywhere from 17-100 million lives world-wide (record-keeping then, as now, is shockingly unreliable).

My maternal grandfather in Cullman County, Alabama, lost his mother and a sister to the 1918 pandemic; I, of course, knew that bit of family history but, until now, it seemed so very distant.


In these days of being housebound, I have gone back to the contemplative writings of Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose meditations on “The Rural Life” were a regular column in The New York Times a decade or so ago. Klinkenborg’s knack for quietly observing the sublime in the common occurrences of nature every day is wise and comforting.

The natural triumphs of April 2020 are overshadowed by the medical challenges, but they are abundant still. A humble backyard project, begun a year ago, has finally achieved my goals. A decade ago, I harvested cuttings from a wild and unruly rose bush off the shore of a small lake across from the house of friends. Most of the cuttings died. The few that survived, however, are prolific and now live in a somewhat stressed piece of pottery outside my back gate. “Stressed” means this Mexican pot, which was once red, I think, is bursting at its seams and may not last another year.

Inspired by English cottage gardens and a house in my mother’s neighborhood, my goal was to train my wild rose over the back fence and across the gate. When it blooms, the blooms only last a few weeks in mid-spring but I carefully trimmed and trained last summer in anticipation of when those fleeting moments might occur.

In this beautiful but cruel April, my mission is accomplished; the bush began to blossom and bloom a couple of weeks ago and today it appears to be near its peak. It has become my habit to take my morning cup of tea at the table in the back yard and admire the tiny flowers as I prepare for another day of remote teaching from the dining room table.

When I went out this morning, a neighborhood cat was calmly balanced atop my back fence, preening among the roses, undeterred by the threat of thorns all around.

Dispatch

Mural in West Homewood; signed by Marcus Fetch

A few weeks ago, before stay-at-home orders but when it was evident that this thing was not going to disappear quickly, I checked to see if a local restaurant that I go to regularly was still open. It was Tuesday and it is my habit to have dinner there on Tuesdays. My friend Christina was usually behind the bar on Tuesdays and there was a coterie that often showed up for dinner at the bar on Tuesday.

I checked in to see if Christina was there and, after telling her I might not show up, I thought long and hard about my decision to go out. I decided to drive over and check out the restaurant’s parking lot. It was almost empty so I parked near the entrance and walked in to be greeted by familiar staff and a room full of empty tables, judiciously spaced a suitable distance apart.

A couple of customers were sitting at the bar; Christina looked up in surprise as I walked in. I took a seat at the far end and kept my distance. Before long, the other Tuesday night crowd arrived – “to show support,” one said – and we dined at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant. A few people phoned-in take-out orders and began to filter in and out.

One couple in the small gathering had recently seen Diana Ross in concert, someone else began to softly hum something, and, before long, we were all singing Diana Ross in the almost empty restaurant. Inevitably, “Stop! In the Name of Love” began, everybody knew the moves, and we sang full-throttle. The chef came out and suggested to Christina that we keep it down so as not to disturb the other customers. There were no other customers.

Nobody said so that night, but we all knew that this would be the last outing for a while. Two days later, Christina texted me: “Dine in is shut down.”


Pepper Place Market; Birmingham

Pepper Place, my favorite farmers market, located in downtown Birmingham, has converted itself to a Saturday morning drive-thru. I placed and paid for my order online, drove to the market site on Saturday morning, was directed to the stations of the farmers I had purchased from, popped the trunk open, my produce was deposited, and I drove away. The Pepper Place Saturday market has always been a great place to linger and people-watch; now it’s back to its basics – providing fresh, locally grown farm products to a grateful clientele in a safe and efficient manner.

On the way back from the market to my parents’ house, I swung by Five Points South. There was the usual component of walkers and runners and dogwalkers and the homeless, but store fronts were shut tight and the place, where I have spent so many enjoyable moments with friends, seemed desolate and somehow forsaken on a bright Saturday morning.

Brother Bryan; Five Points South; Birmingham

In Five Points South, across from Highlands Methodist and Frank Fleming’s “The Storyteller” fountain, “Brother Bryan” prays quietly in front of a bar and grill – in a location that has seen a multitude of restaurants and bars come and go. James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941), the long-time pastor of Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church, was noted for his selfless ministry to the poor, homeless, and destitute. A city park and mission still bear his name and the statue in his honor has been a fixture in the city as long as I can remember.

In good times, he is there almost hidden among the revelers and restaurant clientele; he’s there in bad times, too.


Leaving Five Points South, I was in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb just over the mountain from the city. Homewood’s main commercial district was quiet, but that community has a lot of kids on bikes, families in front yards and on porches, runners and joggers and dog-walkers almost anytime, and the current times are no exception. Traveling down Homewood’s Broadway, I found myself behind a gelato truck, its happy jingle blaring.

In my parents’ neighborhood, stuffed animals began to appear in windows, on porches, and in trees and shrubs – inspired by the world-wide trend of the “teddy bear hunt” to provide a distraction for children. My mother was the first on her street to put a stuffed animal in the window and I awoke one morning to the delighted shrieks of a neighborhood toddler on the sidewalk outside who had just made his spotting. Within a couple of days, most of the neighbors had stuffed animals hidden somewhere on their premises, too.


Over my alleged “spring break,” I began to catch murmurings that this remote teaching thing might last until the end of the year. The specter of teaching for nine more months in a way that is anathema to everything I believe about education – especially as a performance instructor – haunts me.


Arriving back at home on Sunday evening, I was pleased to see that the irises by my front door were bursting into bloom and the wild potted rose that I have been training over my back fence and gate was showing its first tentative blooms of the season. I sat in my yard and enjoyed the beauty of the season and the nearly full moon that was just beginning to show in the pale sky.

The next day, I submitted my letter of intent to retire. My retirement will go into effect on June 1.

It has been a horrible year so far. But pay attention to the nature around you. It has been a beautiful spring, hasn’t it?