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.

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.

Passing

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.

Triggers

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.

Peaking

  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.

Breathe

On the day before I leave for my annual December pilgrimage to Point Clear, I notice an online horoscope for my sign that reads

A strong craving for solitude tempts you to ask people to leave you alone today. Many animals hibernate for the sake of rest and revitalization; you’re not purposely pushing anyone away to hurt their feelings … Let everyone know you are not vanishing from their lives; you just need more sleep. This is one of those occasions when cuddling with your individuality rejuvenates the beast within…

I do not put much stock in astrology, but occasionally a horoscope – like a fortune cookie – will hit the nail on the head (not sure how I feel about rejuvenating “the beast within,” however).

I have made this December trip so many times that there is no longer pressure. I’ve thoroughly explored the landscape down here and don’t feel a need to venture forth too much if I don’t want to.

On this drive down, I am weary.

There is a time in that drive when I exit I-65 South onto AL 225 toward Spanish Fort. Taking that exit, I breathe. I open the car window to breathe in that air “below the salt line.” The air is brisk and chill and I savor its tonic.


By the time I drive through the gates of the Grand Hotel (www.grand1847.com), I am calm and relaxed. After checking in at the gate, driving onto the grounds, I hear the gate attendant say “Mr. Journey is here. He’s driving a gray Ford.”

Although I have heard the prompt, it pleases me when the valet opens my door with a warm “Welcome back, Mr. Journey.” I used to be a professional director and stage manager and I appreciate that attention to detail.

The low pre-winter sunset is intense on my balcony as I unpack and settle in for the all too brief pre-Christmas respite. The afternoon cannon firing at bayside occurs just as I open the balcony doors of my room in the spa building.

On a late afternoon stroll around the lagoon, with holiday lights beginning to flicker on, the squawking ducks, clamoring for food, distract me from the great blue heron standing like a statue just a few feet away. I have just enough time to snap a photo of the stately bird before he glides across the water, landing on the other side with a fish in tow which he quickly ingests.

This year, the lighting in the lagoon area has taken on a theme of arches, with Christmas trees sprinkled liberally along the walkways. In addition to archways scattered throughout the area, the natural arches created by the dipping branches of the ancient live oaks are dramatically accented along the way. The three fountains that dot the lagoon spray up like magnificent sparklers. The effect at dusk, with the golden lights illuminating the dripping Spanish moss and the silver lights on the fountains, is as magical as any magic I’m willing to believe in at this stage of life.


My annual Christmas present to myself – a warm stone massage with Claudia – is scheduled for my first morning at the Grand. I arrive at the spa early to relax in the calm of the quiet room and to catch up on news of my favorite attendants; Al Agee retired a couple of months ago after many decades at the Grand, and J.C., who was off that day, is still around. Michael, the attendant on duty, is a charming character and – like Al and J.C. – he has good stories to share.

I have described my massage with Claudia as “the shortest eighty minutes of my year.” On several occasions during the session, I hear myself expel a deep breath, often as bundles of nerves and tension begin to fade away.

Is it any wonder that I spend my year anticipating this annual respite?


With the Grand resort’s recent upgrades and renovation, the new Southern Roots restaurant is a most welcome addition, providing an inventive, locally-oriented menu featuring locally-sourced produce, seafood, meats, and desserts. The mixologists provide an inventive daily inspiration in the adjoining 1847 Bar. Everything is exceptional. I normally go out for dinner when I stay at the Grand but will be taking more meals on-site now.

Down the road in Fairhope, Dragonfly Foodbar continues to offer an inventive menu of tastes fueled by Asian and Mexican influences. I seat myself in a dining room at Dragonfly that is between two more crowded rooms and amuse myself with the interesting juxtaposition of music coming from each side. As one room plays classic rock, the other plays upbeat holiday tunes. This results in vivid aural contrasts: “It’s Raining Men” competes with “Carol of the Bells” followed by Elton John singing “Tiny Dancer” on my left with “Sleigh Ride” bouncing along to my right.

I tell the server that the random musical contrasts are pretty trippy. “Yeah,” she smiles, “I kinda love it.”

The trippy music trend continues later in the trip as I am sitting at 1847. Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Winter Wonderland” is playing in Southern Roots while, across the Grand Hall at the Bayside Grill, a live musician performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” And I would swear that I simultaneously hear The Supremes’ “The Happening” ghosting in from somewhere in the distance.

The Wash House (www.washhouserestaurant.com), a long-time favorite just down the road from the Grand, is bustling with holiday and birthday celebrations on the night I am there. I decide at the last minute to dine at the more quiet bar tucked away to the side of the main dining room. Seafood is always fresh and local at the Wash House.

The next night, at Camellia Café (www.camelliacafe.com), I start my meal with a half dozen Isle Dauphine oysters from west Mobile Bay near Dauphin Island. These tasty oysters are harvested not far from where my current favorite Murder Point bivalves originate near Bayou La Batre.


Interspersed among my dining experiences are drives around the bay, the search for interesting landscapes and architecture, and the opportunity to photograph favorite spots, both new and old. The dock at one of the city parks along Scenic 98 has long been a favorite. Later, I pull up to Harrison Farms on the main highway for bags of satsumas, to B&B Pecan Co. for local pecans, and to Punta Clara Candy Kitchen for preserves to include in the traditional New Year’s Day meal.

The Sacred Heart Chapel, just down the road from the Grand, is a small church from 1880 facing the bay. It’s closed in the winter, but its grounds provide a pleasant stroll. It’s a quiet spot that has seen its share of hurricanes and battering weather over almost a century and a half, with a porch that is a good spot to rest and take a breath.


The final full day is a special one – although rain persists throughout the day. Early, I go down to Bucky’s, the hotel’s stalwart lounge in the main building, and enjoy West Indies salad, a Mobile original – a chilled salad of crabmeat, chopped onions, oil and vinegar, and seasoning. Later, I return to Bucky’s to join friends Deborah, Jeana, and Emily for a generous and delicious serving of fried crab claws that takes us all back to memories of Grand visits in the past. Emily, who manages a Mexican restaurant near Mobile, introduces me to the Paloma.

On that final evening, I join the Brunson family at Allison and Richard Brunson’s home on the bay. As soon as the front door opens, the aromas of homemade gumbo have filled the house. It’s lovely to sit at table with my friends and their family. As the only one around the table who is not a Mobile native, I enjoy hearing the reminiscences of long-ago days of a Mobile childhood. After an exceptionally delicious slice of Allison’s pecan pie for dessert, I go back to the hotel to rest for my rainy drive back to Birmingham in the morning.

All of these moments go into my storehouse of Christmas memories.


After checking out of the hotel, I have one more errand before I hit the road: I stop at Market by the Bay (www.marketbythebay.com) on the way through Daphne and pick up a shrimp po’boy to go. Back in the car, I put the open-faced sandwich on the passenger seat beside me and pop succulent fried shrimp as I drive. The sandwich is gone by the time I get to I-65, take a breath, and merge onto the crowded highway.

Breathe. And savor the holidays.

Christmas Card – 2019

For a university professor, there comes a feeling of freedom that is hard to explain after a college commencement. The stress of weeks of advising, calculating grades, assessing final exams, and fielding last-minute (and often questionable) excuses, yields to a few hours of everybody dressing in medieval robes and going through an ancient ceremony of finality and (hopefully) new beginnings. Commencement. And only one more faculty meeting standing between me and the short holiday break ahead.


My Christmas cards went out a few minutes earlier than usual this year. As a rule, I don’t want the cards postmarked any earlier than December 1. This year, I waited until later on November 30 to mail the cards from the main post office in downtown Birmingham; after they were put in the box, I saw that the last Saturday pick-up was 8:00 p.m.

It was approximately 7:45 when I noticed that.

I began to get text and email acknowledgements of my cards’ receipt on December 1 and, indeed, the postmark was November 30. Nobody but I would notice or care about that little trivia.

That annual Christmas card – usually with a photograph of an older Alabama church building – has become a year-long project which I have written about in the past. As soon as the cards go out around December 1, I start searching for another image to feature next year. That decision is usually made some time in January; the next few months are spent revisiting the image and thinking about messages when I have some free time and need a break.

The message changes over the course of the year, depending on what’s happening in the world. Some variation of “Peace” has been a constant since 9/11/2001.

In the first few years of the project, I usually stuck with a basic “Merry Christmas” and “Peace on Earth” type message. This year, the “Merry Christmas” was accompanied by “Peace | 2020 | Hope.” That means something to me, whether recipients get it or not. I feel like 2020 may be a watershed year for our world, not unlike 1968 was in my youth, and I look forward to it with both excitement and trepidation.

My Christmas card combines my interests in photography, history, ecclesiastical architecture, and architecture and nature in general. It is always a way to touch base with those I don’t always hear from during the year. The card “restores my soul.” I have written in the past about how each card I address (over 200 this year) becomes a “brief meditation” on that recipient.

My church this year is a 2018 photograph of St. Francis at the Point, a pretty white Anglican church in the charming village of Point Clear on Mobile Bay. It is just down the way from the Grand Hotel where I try to spend a few days each December between commencement and Christmas. On occasion, if my Point Clear trip coincides with a Sunday morning, I will attend an Advent service at St. Francis. On a sunny December morning, with sunlight streaming through the abundant clear glass windows, it is a perfect place for reflection, hope, and meditation. The building is actually a 21st Century structure, dedicated in 2001, but it captures the essence of a style of church architecture that inspires me to grab the camera. The little St. Francis at the Point Chapel, originally built in 1898, sits near the newer building; it adorned my card a few years ago.

My Christmas card is an act of celebration of the holidays and the season to come. It is looking forward to a freshly-pressed year hanging on the line and just almost, almost within our reach – with all of the potential that image represents.

Commencement.

Chapel – St. Francis at the Point

Impending December

Thirty years ago, as the first day of December eased in on a cold midnight, I was sitting at the City Pier on the New London, Connecticut, waterfront. I was in the former whaling center and seaport on tour with a theatre group and had just completed a long and difficult work day in a long and occasionally demanding schedule.

As late and as cold as it was, I had walked through the quiet, empty town toward the water in a light snow to let the frigid sea air clear my head. The walk to the waterfront includes a charming statue of an earnest Eugene O’Neill as a boy, writing intently on his tablet. The acclaimed playwright spent boyhood summers at his family’s Monte Cristo Cottage a couple of miles down the harbor.

As I sat at the harbor, I listened to George Winston’s classic 1982 album December on my Walkman. That music became a frequent companion on the fall 1989 tour. It relaxed me in particularly stressful times.

As each December approaches, I find myself thinking about the soothing music of December. It speaks to the title’s power of suggestion that I only think about that album when December approaches; I would never think of listening to it after New Year’s Eve. Winston’s meditative solo piano perfectly captures the mood of the winter holiday season with its long dark nights, bittersweet memories, pensive moods, and festive gatherings.

December is upon us in this Thanksgiving week of late November. Holiday decorations are beginning to pop up in neighborhoods and stores are already a frenzy of commercial Christmas “cheer.” I plan to find my Christmas wreath at this Saturday’s Pepper Place Market in downtown Birmingham. My Christmas cards are boxed up and ready to be taken to the post office on December 1.

Everything in Alabama will seem to grind to a standstill on the afternoon of November 30 as the annual Iron Bowl football game between Alabama and cross-state rival Auburn occurs – the 84th time that this rivalry has been played. For years it was played in Birmingham’s Legion Field; now it alternates between Tuscaloosa and Auburn. It is as entrenched as any holiday tradition.

My annual December trip to the Grand Hotel on Mobile Bay is on hold. I took too long to figure out my dates and there seem to be no rooms at the inn. I will keep working on it, and I could always go somewhere else – or even take a room somewhere near Point Clear – but the pull of the Grand is strong for me this time of year and I am determined to still make it happen. Memories of Spanish moss hanging from holly trees on the lagoon are always a strong pull.

Another piece of music that comes to mind around December is Joni Mitchell’s classic, “River,” which writer Dan Chiasson calls “the song that, almost two thousand years late, made the Christmas season bearable.” “It’s coming on Christmas,” Mitchell sings, “They’re cutting down trees / Putting up reindeer / Singing songs of joy and peace // Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on …”

I prefer my rivers unfrozen, but the sentiment is clear. As dear as the Christmas holiday is, it can also be a time of stress and tension and feelings of loss. Whenever I hear somebody say, “I’ll be glad when the holidays are over,” I cringe a little.

But I get it, too.

In the meantime, I will celebrate the holidays and – like my mother’s dog, Lulu – I will seek out my warm spot in the sunshine until I find a river I can sail away on.

Waning October

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Proust. Or maybe it’s because I watched part of a Bob Ross marathon on public television over the weekend. Maybe it’s because I heard Prince’s “When Doves Cry” night before last. Whatever it is, as I began to winterize my back yard yesterday, I found myself more attuned than usual to detail and the melancholy of changing seasons.

October was more manic than usual in this Tennessee River Valley region of north Alabama. There were drought-like conditions for a while, accompanied by record-breaking heat. Now the weather is more seasonal, but there is minimal fall color on local foliage. This will be a year when it rains, leaves turn brown, wind comes, and leaves blow down.

I have watched the weather closely, wanting to keep house plants outside as long as possible before moving them indoors. With a first freeze forecast for this weekend, I decided it was time to pull the trigger and move things in.

Only a few things needed to be brought inside this year. The ponytail palm I have kept for twenty years still resides snugly in the concrete pot inherited from my grandfather. A philodendron, remaining from a memorial arrangement of plants sent to my father’s funeral, is being tricky; a few months outdoors seemed to be reviving the plant to its former glory but it has dwindled again. It’s hoped that a few months being pampered in a sunny spot just inside the back door will revive it.

The braided ficus now hovers over the philodendron, standing again in its cold weather spot welcoming anyone entering through the back door. It will probably shed leaves for a while due to the shock of being moved from outdoors to inside – a distance of perhaps eight feet – but it always recovers quickly, brightening up the indoors during the drearier months.

An unexpected import to my library was a container full of basil that has spent the warm weather just outside the back door. I usually allow nature to take its course with the backyard container herbs but the basil is still so healthy that it was moved in, taking a spot in a back window. It’s on the table where I like to eat my summer tomato sandwiches, dressed with basil from those same plants. I’m challenged to see how long into the chilly season I can keep home-grown fresh basil and pesto.

Most of the outdoor plants that will remain outdoors seem oblivious to the encroaching cold. My grandfather’s wild rose, planted along the back walk, has taken advantage of the milder weather to sprout a whole new bunch of blooms and buds. Based on weather forecasts, those may be gone by this time next week. The hydrangea is beginning to retreat. For several years now it has refused to bloom. Every year at this time I vow to do the needed soil amendments to help it flower again next year and every year at this time I regret putting it off for another year.

The redbud, which had such an impressive growth spurt over the summer, has already dropped all but two of its heart-shaped leaves. Based on the success of the little tree this year, I am finally confident that it will survive to flourish next year. Meanwhile, the camellia seems healthy and strong and should be showing crimson blooms within the weeks to come. A fragrant tea olive, planted outside the back gate, is putting on a final fall show of delicate white blossoms.

There was no time to pursue many of my desired garden goals this year, but the one I committed to was nurturing a pot-grown wild rose at my back gate (opposite the tea olive). Over the years, I have tried to train a flowering plant to climb over my back fence and gate. Jasmine never took the hint, but this wild rose, which has become a fast-growing and wildly prolific mainstay at the back gate, is taking well to being trained. It doesn’t look like much now, but I look forward to the two or three weeks in early spring when it blossoms and creates a sweetly fragrant welcome when I arrive home.

Even as the yard is made ready for cooler weather, I make mental notes of changes and improvements to be made come spring. These thoughts of next year propel me forward to face the long nights and dreary cold days ahead.

 

Fall Feast in the Shoals

The cotton was shimmering in the low-slung October sun as my friend Anne and I travelled into the Shoals. When we parked at the Alabama Chanin Factory in Florence, a faint rainbow was showing amid pink sunset clouds.

It was time for another Friends of the Café dinner at the Alabama Chanin Factory (www.alabamachanin.com) – a dinner series that draws interesting people from the Shoals and beyond to the former tee-shirt factory on the edge of Florence, Alabama.

Due to fall’s early sunsets, the inviting fashion showroom and dining area were already dusky and shadowy – the skylights providing scant illumination; the room was mostly lit by the glow of candles from a bevy of tables awaiting a sumptuous feast by guest chef Tandy Wilson.

James Beard Award-winner and Nashville native son Tandy Wilson’s City House (www.cityhousenashville.com) is a pioneer of Nashville’s currently vaunted culinary scene. City House and Wilson are celebrated for a menu with a strong Italian influence highlighted by fresh and local Southern accents. The Florence dinner was a perfect example of that blend with Italian dishes featuring seasonal ingredients paired with fine Italian wines. All Friends of the Café events are fundraisers for worthy causes. The Tandy Wilson dinner benefits Project Threadways, a nonprofit that records, studies, and explores the history of the textile industry in the Shoals community, and the American South.

The evening kicked off with a welcome “Fall Indulgence” of Prosecco and apple cider garnished with rosemary and an apple slice. Appetizers began to circulate through the crowd, including a gnocchi fritto topped with a tomato conserva and crostini topped with peanut crema, chicken crackling, and mint. The pre-show showstopper for me, however, was a crispy meatball with a peach-based Jezebel glaze. Each time those meatballs floated past on trays carried by the Alabama Chanin staff, I could not resist.

After thirty minutes of mingling and chat, the diners were seated for a performance by Single Lock Records (www.singlelock.com) artist Caleb Elliott, featuring selections from his debut album, Forever to Fade. Elliott’s label calls his sound “swamp-art-rock.” That works — but I’d call it a soulful contemporary version of the classic Muscle Shoals Sound with thoughtful lyrics, poignant vocal phrasings, and lushly inventive orchestrations. I’ve been listening to ­Forever to Fade ever since the event and highly recommend this engaging musician/singer/songwriter.

The musician’s more pared down selections at the Factory featured Elliott, with his sensuous lyrics, guitar, and bass, and violinist Kimi Samson, providing string and vocal accompaniment. After a long week, this pre-dinner entertainment was a revelation. Elliott and Samson’s performance in the dimly lit room was beautiful; as they played, the staff continued to glide  surreally through in the glow of candlelight — offering up appetizers to the seated diners. It was one of the most transcendent of many magical moments I’ve experienced in that venue in the past five years.

By the time the pre-dinner activities concluded, we had become acquainted with a tableful of interesting people including artists, musicians, educators, and fashion, medical, and communications professionals from the Shoals and beyond. One couple – originally from the Shoals – was visiting from Germany, where they have lived for several decades. Everyone at the table, it seemed, had a common connection with Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Once again, I had leverage for my slightly tongue-in-cheek observation that “Florence is the center of the universe, and all roads pass through Tuscaloosa.”

I might have overdone it with the meatball appetizer, but I managed to find room for the first of four courses that Chef Wilson distinguished by combining a load of ingredients in ways that allowed each to shine through and have its moment (or more) on the palate.

The first course featured three family-style dishes starting with a salad of hearty greens with alici (fresh anchovies) and a generous creamy mozzarella made by Chef Wilson in the Factory kitchen that morning. Part two of the first course was a sour corn cake with roasted squash embellished with mint, chilies, and sumac. That first course culminated with roasted octopus accompanied with soup beans, charred cabbage, bacon, chilies, garlic, and toasted bread crumbs.

The octopus might have raised an eyebrow or two at my table, but I bit into it eagerly and had  the best bite of octopus I have enjoyed in my life thus far. I hope Chef Wilson would not be offended if I compare it to the rich, succulent texture of fatback. As the bowl made its way back around the table, I hoped to find a piece of octopus remaining, but no such luck.

The second course was more minimal with a simple spaghetti “cacio e pepe” served with a roasted vegetable ragu, fried bread, and parsley. The simplicity of the dish was an elegant complement to the complex flavors that preceded it.

The centerpiece of the third course was a roasted pork loin. Chef Wilson explained that he thinks his version of his Nana’s marinade, which accompanied the pork, was a pretty good recreation of his grandmother’s closely guarded recipe; he confessed, however, that other family members do not agree that his kitchen nailed it. The marinated pork loin was succulent and singular, but the bed it rested on is what caught my attention and intrigued me even more. The room temperature accompaniment to the pork was a multi-textured mix of cauliflower, pomegranate, almond, red onion, and parsley. The mouthfeel of the pork with the chewy crunch of the other ingredients is a food memory I will carry with me for a long time.

Finally, the dessert was apple crostada with oat pecan streusel. It’s hard to imagine a better finale to an early fall feast. The accompanying extra brut was a fine way to offer a toast with the new friends at table, and to wish that we all might again converge at the Factory for another memorable meal in 2020.