Summer Solstice 2020

Near the start of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” This year, one hopes for more truth than usual in that statement as we count down a dismal year. As the sun begins its slow six-month drift south, perhaps some of the disease, divisiveness, and turmoil will ebb.

I would feel remiss if I did not acknowledge the Summer Solstice – the longest day of light of the year – and my annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby. I found time to attend to the plants in my yard as the frequent rains of Spring seem to once again be yielding to a Summer threat of drought. There was frequent enough rain through the last several months. I don’t think we’re in danger yet, but it hasn’t rained in several days and I was dripping sweat after only a half hour of yard work earlier.

I managed to make my second trip to Harrison Farms in Chilton County a few days ago and got peaches for myself, and for friends and family who have standing orders. Lynn, one of the Harrison sons, indicated that this might be an abbreviated peach season, but Mrs. Harrison said this week that their cantaloupes and watermelons aren’t ready yet and that gives me hope for a little longer season of opportunities to make the relaxing drive to Chilton County. The okra was coming in and I got a basket of perfect baby okra to bread and fry.


The peaches at the Harrisons’ acres of orchards near Maplesville are my summer touchstone, and were a sideways inspiration for “Professional Southerner.” In 2012, I spent every other Saturday of peach season traveling to Chilton County with a videographer to collect footage and interviews for a documentary about Chilton County peaches with a focus on Harrison Fruit Farm.

We collected several hours’ worth of video over a really pleasant summer. I remember an August afternoon when we set up in the parking lot of Fat Girls’ Barbecue in Billingsley and spent an hour shooting the setting sun over rolling hills of central Alabama. We spent one entire Saturday shooting the Peach Festival parade and related events in downtown Clanton. When we finally got into the editing process, the videographer’s husband decided she was spending too much time on the project for too little compensation and she abandoned me.

A filmmaker colleague at the university looked over the footage, decided that we needed to re-shoot a lot of things, and offered to help to finish the project. Before we could make that happen, my colleague got sick and died and I was never able to track down the missing footage. When I gathered my belongings from my office for retirement last month, I came across a mysterious external hard drive in the far reaches of my book shelf. Maybe … I will have to find time to check.

The film is still vivid in my head – I even got permission to use a Pat Metheny track I really like for underscoring. Whenever I make a peach run to Harrison Farms, I feel guilty that the family was so generous with their time – they all sat for interviews – and the documentary never happened.

But the experience inspired an essay that subsequently inspired me to start the “Professional Southerner” journal. That essay, “The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand,” continues to be one of the most popular posts of the journal over the years. The peach stand and I are about the same age and trips down there always lift my spirits, even during the uncertainty of Summer 2020.

“… borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

A tropical storm is swirling to the west of us right now, bringing intermittent winds and rain to my part of Alabama. Unless I am in the brunt of a tropical storm – and I have been on a few occasions – I am drawn to the energy of that peripheral circuit of occasional storms moving ever onward with their wind-driven rain and distant thunder. Those tropical rains always seem, to me, more cleansing than other weather events.

Fittingly, the “Peggy Martin” heirloom rose that I ordered a couple of months ago was delivered to my front door today between brief showers. The Peggy Martin was bred from a rose in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, that survived for two weeks under twenty feet of water in Mrs. Martin’s yard after Hurricane Katrina. Neighbors in my parents’ Birmingham neighborhood have trained one over their garage and the blooms are magnificent. Once I heard the history of the plant, I had to have it for myself and was able to order it from Petals from the Past in Jemison, Alabama (www.petalsfromthepast.com).


When people learn of my retirement, which was official on June 1, they ask me how I plan to “celebrate.” This is not a celebratory time; I can think of no appropriate celebration. A trip is out of the question and I’m not anxious to go sit in a restaurant just yet. I enjoy being outside and think it will be enough for now to take walks, work in the yard, and find some place quiet to think and reflect.

The traditional gift for retirement was a gold watch or some other sort of commemorative timepiece. It symbolized that one’s time was finally one’s own, no longer owed to an employer.

It’s a nice idea, but metal watches and I have a bad history. I can wear watches with leather or synthetic bands, but it is proven that some people’s body chemistry stops watches and I must be one of those people. Every metal-banded watch I have ever owned has died prematurely. Whenever I adjust the time or date on my father’s gold watch, I limit my contact lest my curse cause consequences.

Today, I think, a timepiece would mostly symbolize counting down the remaining days and hours of the annus horribilis that is 2020.


Nevertheless, I am fond of ritual and, to commemorate this particular milestone, I have been writing short thank you notes to people who were influential in my career and education over the years. It is a peaceful and positive step, interrupted by the news that another friend from my Tuscaloosa years has died – the fourth such friend I have heard about since New Year’s Day. Notes of thanks give way to an expression of sympathy and loss.


On a more positive note, I can truly celebrate that, after close to two years, I have finally finished reading every single word of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. At times, it seemed like a burden, but I enjoyed the task overall. Throughout a lifetime of reading, I have found that I will often tackle a book at just the right time, and the past two years seemed the right time to conquer Mount Proust. It’s a masterful novel, full of digressions and rife with human foibles, not the least of which are those of the Narrator himself. His paranoiac jealousy and obsessive nature are often irritating and I occasionally tossed the novel aside in disgust. Yet I always returned.

Proust’s catty social satire, which often made me laugh out loud, is a clever indictment of a milieu I’ll never know firsthand. I was often startled to realize that the society he describes in the final volumes is barely a century past. Each time he evokes an airplane or automobile, I felt myself jolted into the modern era.

Hundreds of characters come and go through the 3300 plus pages. Some leave and never return; some leave, only to reappear volumes later. Some die.


On a more prosaic note, I ventured out for some necessities this afternoon and, as I walked past a clothing store geared to big and stout women, a woman walked past me wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed “In the South We Say ‘Hey Y’All’.” I have no problem, really, with “Hey Y’All” and I might have said it on occasion; I can’t remember when, and it would have been ironic, no doubt, but still, I don’t find it offensive. I was actually relieved that the tee-shirt manufacturer had punctuated “y’all” correctly. Still, what kind of person would feel a need to proclaim such a thing on a tee-shirt at the big and stout store?

Baseball great Willie Mays, from the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield, has been known as the “Say Hey Kid” throughout his storied life. And, of course, the Gomer Pyle character, created by actor Jim Nabors, made “hey” a sort of mantra. Even now, whenever somebody tells me that somebody sent me a “hey,” I will usually reply, “’Hey to Goober.”

I say “y’all” whenever it feels right, but I must admit that Southern cook Paula Deen sort of ruined “y’all” for me forever.


Recently, I was talking to a pregnant friend. She was healthy and upbeat and our conversation shifted to current events. I commented that it is amazing, really, how well we are all functioning – all things considered. “It’s really horrible,” I said, “what the world is going through. And yet, we are dealing with it; we’re still functional.”

“Yeah,” she said, “we just need some certainty, some direction. Everything is so fluid now.”


My Peggy Martin rose doesn’t look like much right now, as it basks in the rains of the remnants of a tropical storm. I think, though, that I may look to it for a great deal of symbolism in the months and years to come.

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.

Roman Street Wednesdays

During this period of staying at home and changing habits, new habits emerge. For example, on Wednesday morning for the past few weeks, I have awakened with the song “Rio San Juan” from the Roman Street album, Caravan, playing in my head (http://www.romanstreet.com). Roman Street, the Mobile Bay-based jazz guitar duo of brothers Josh and Noah Thompson, has commenced a series of “Quarantine Jams” from Josh’s dining room every Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. CDT on their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Roman-Street).

I have followed Roman Street for several years now. I first learned about the band through a chance meeting in the Quiet Room at the Grand Hotel spa in Point Clear. When Noah went back for his spa treatment, Josh and I struck up a conversation in which he told me that they were locally-based musicians. He had an infectious enthusiasm and I was inspired to check out the band.

Later that day, I looked up Roman Street’s website and discography and realized that Roman Street has performed around the world, got part of their musical training in Europe, and have had singles on the Billboard charts over the years. The next night, at a dinner party in Fairhope, I asked a local musician about Roman Street and he assured me that they are “the real deal.” I was embarrassed that I was just learning about them.

Since then, I have seen the band in concert a couple of times and have followed their progression through guitar-based albums with an impressive cast of guest and semi-regular musicians. Roman Street is comfortable in a variety of styles and defies categories, although ‘smooth jazz” and “jazz fusion” often come to mind. Their music is dominated by original compositions along with an occasional cover. Like most performers, their live performance schedule is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

I have caught most of the “Quarantine Jams.” So far, Roman Street has devoted each program to playing through their albums in order, commenting as they go and bantering with the comments of their audience on texts and the Facebook page. This week (May 13), they completed their discography tour with the freshly released album Balcony of the World. Even though they have caught up with their albums, the jams will continue over the next several weeks with a session of audience-requested cover arrangements scheduled for Wednesday, May 20.

I plan to be watching and listening.

The weekly Wednesday jams have become appointment listening for me. Roman Street’s brand of music that is both energetic and mellow has become my companion on frequent drives between north Alabama and Birmingham.

They are, indeed, the “real deal.”

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.

A Joyful Noise

Sun Ra

“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”

So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.

Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.

He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”


Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.

Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”

He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”

Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.

In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.

Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.

When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.

“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.

Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.

The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”

I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.

The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”


Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.

Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.

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?

Days of Exile

Demopolis

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:

https://vimeo.com/399923725

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.

Camellia

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.