Tag Archives: COVID-19

September Song

My mental and emotional soundtracks tend to run toward the very seasonally suggestive. While George Winston’s December album never works for me beyond its titular month, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns lags after Labor Day.

September rolls around and it’s hard to ignore the imminence of Autumn. The last days of August were grey and partly gloomy as the eastern-most remnants of Hurricane Laura passed through northern Alabama; other storms followed in her wake. Fall college football season will be so depleted as to create anxiety and despair rather than jubilation; it’s hard to work up the usual enthusiasm for a Kentucky Derby on Labor Day weekend without crowds. Even so, I want Bob Baffert-trained horses to win.


Back in the early summer, four packets of flower seeds arrived in my mother’s mail with a charitable solicitation. They sat around for a bit and, one day, when I had the luxury of working in my yard, I popped them in four separate pots without great expectations.

Ultimately, most of the seeds have sprouted and grown with varying levels of success, but the only ones to bloom so far are the vivid blue forget-me-nots. The garden table and surrounding yard where they sit is laden now with leaves from the cherry tree in the neighbor’s yard. That tree is always the first to shed its leaves, but also among the first to herald spring a few months later.


Short days and cooler weather often have a negative effect on my mood, but a suggestive impact on my inner soundtrack. I will swear that yesterday, on the first morning of September, I woke up with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” running constantly through my head.

As I got more awake, “Try to Remember,” from the Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt chamber musical The Fantasticks, began to dominate with its recurring motif of words that rhyme with September and other infectious internal rhyme and wordplay.

More fully awake, the tune that haunts me is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a song that, like all universal literature, morphs depending on the moment. Written in response to a parent’s death from cancer, it has dealt with the tragedy of 9/11 and war and the loss of life and dignity after Katrina.

My most visceral musical response to this particular September of 2020, however, is Rosanne Cash’s haunting duet with her father, Johnny, in her song “September When It Comes,” a plaintive song of memory, pain, and reconciliation. She sings:

Well first there’s summer, then I’ll let you in.
September when it comes.

These past six months have done a number on all of us. The pervasive pandemic and its still-indecisive outcomes and after-effects have worked on all of our nervous systems, regardless of our political affiliations. The fact that it has become political adds to the undeniable and needless tension and stress.

I have chosen to minimize my intake of “news” for a while. I need to step back and more judiciously protect the information I consume. I need to halter the despair.


The writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, whose contemplative essays often provide balm in times of stress, remarked on the over-saturation of media coverage in the aftermath of 9/11 almost nineteen years ago. He calls 9/11/2001 “that sudden Tuesday.” Could it ever be summarized more perfectly?

Reacting to the saturation of media coverage of that event, and to the fact that we Americans were re-playing the tragedy over and over on our screens, Klinkenborg wrote:

It’s hard to know, just yet, whether for each of us this witnessing has caused an erosion or a sedimentation, a stripping away of the skin or a callusing. But paradoxical as it may sound, to continue to bear witness, in conscience, it may be necessary to stop watching for a while, to turn off the television, to break what for some people has become a self-reinforcing circle of despair.


In those stoic days after 9/11, I was working at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery. Our theatre complex was located in a pastoral park, across the lake from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. A couple of days after “that sudden Tuesday,” I escaped to the Museum for a quiet lunch away from the news reports that permeated every space I encountered.

A group of older ladies was seated at a table near me. As I eavesdropped on their chatter, I discovered that they were from all over the country — stuck for a while at a hotel in Montgomery, waiting for the airports to open and for travel to resume. Periodically, during the conversations, I heard references to the tragedy that had left them all stranded for a moment in time. Mostly, however, I heard the resolute and determined voices of American women who were forced together in the most unlikely of circumstances and were making connections and “making do” until they were able to move on with their lives.  They were awaiting the break in the clouds that engulfed us.


Might that “circle of despair” be somehow broken in this current moment?

Ascetic August 2020

Local tomatoes are prolific in this mid-summer early August as I gratefully accept all offers from friends and neighbors. There may be a glut of home-grown tomatoes right now; they will – like the summer – disappear soon enough, and much too soon for my tastes.

Not long ago, not having a fresh tomato on hand, and sort of craving tomatoes, I made the mistake of buying one on a whim at the grocery store. It has been years since I purchased a supermarket tomato and I was shocked anew at the lack of taste and the plastic consistency; I was reminded why I swore off supermarket tomatoes in the first place. After a couple of bites, I threw the pretender out and waited for a farmers’ market or a kind friend to come through. I never had much luck growing tomatoes on my own.

Fortunately, tomatoes have been coming from all directions in the past few weeks and I haven’t wasted a single one. Salads, tomato sandwiches, and sharp acidic sauces are the order of the day and, for many meals, a tomato sandwich or two suffice.

After the first frost, I may use good canned tomatoes – preferably Italian San Marzano, as needed, for recipes and sauces, but the authentic taste of a fresh locally grown summer tomato, still warm from the plant, is the epitome of summer southern comfort.

In the ascetic summer of 2020, simple home-based pleasures like fresh tomatoes take on added significance. I’m grateful for my retirement; this fraught fall semester of teaching would surely have done me in.


I recently read a piece about Ernie Pyle, the iconic World War II war correspondent who was a casualty of the war in Japan in 1945. In a dispatch during the war, he wrote: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world, I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

Tonight, a full moon is just appearing through the trees over Green Mountain and I understand Pyle’s longing — a longing that is in most of us, I suspect. Pyle expresses the opportunity to return to something loved, something missed, something yearned for. The idea of “normal” is toppled, but we try to make amends.


In 1989, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, with a script by Craig Lucas, was the first theatrical film to address the AIDS crisis. In the final scene, three friends who have survived the initial onslaught of the virus – before it was quite understood – are walking along a lonely Fire Island beach. They are musing about what it will be like when a cure is found.

Willy, Campbell Scott’s character, says, “I just want to be there,” cuing a fantasy sequence in which hundreds jubilantly flock to and party on their beach. The three stalwarts are reunited with their old friends who have succumbed to the (then) mysterious virus. As abruptly as it began, the fantasy ends, and the three figures are left once again on the beach, alone.

Ronald Reagan’s denial of the AIDS outbreak during his presidency, in the early years of that particular pandemic, calls to mind the current self-serving denial of the Oval Office’s current occupant. I cannot change the world, so I will try to nurture myself with its bounty and trust the doctors to see us through. And I will vote come election day.

I just want to be there.

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

Saharan Sunset | Moveable Feast

The fact that our lives in the Southeast United States this weekend were significantly influenced by an infusion of dust from the African Sahara is a reminder of how small our world is and how close we all are.

There is a quality of light on this early summer late afternoon that is striking. It’s hard to determine, really, how much is cloudiness as a front settles in and how much is the dust. I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s Light in August and, as a firm believer in the Faulkner claim that his title refers to an actual natural phenomenon, I prefer to attribute the odd quality of the sky today to natural occurrences from across the Atlantic.

Driving down a two-lane highway into Oxford, Mississippi, on an August afternoon some decades ago, I was sure that the specific light through the long-leaf pines was what Faulkner, and his wife, Estelle, who suggested the title Light in August, surely meant. It was a special and translucent light that is hard to describe. When you encounter it, you will surely recognize it.

It has been raining off and on all day in north Alabama, and the pre-dusk light has taken on an intensely bright quality. The sunset last night was splendid, but tonight’s dusk tends to be leaning toward a chalky mundane.


Lifestyle changes have been the order of the day – every day – in this year of the pandemic. Much of my social activity for years centered around meals and an effort to satisfy my interest in foodways — in social as well as historical terms.

The last time I ate a meal in a restaurant was March. As restrictions have begun to be loosened – prematurely, I think – I still have no real desire to “dine in” for a while. I want to support my local eateries and I have ordered take-out from some of my favorite places in an effort to do so. Even as the restaurants do their part to ensure safety, there are just too many people who don’t seem to be taking this crisis seriously. Currently, I know of about eight people who are diagnosed with COVID.

I know many of the restaurants are open on a more restricted basis and I wish them well. I was amused to read that The Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com), the much-acclaimed Virginia restaurant outside D.C., had plans to seat costumed mannequins in its dining rooms upon reopening so that the place would not feel so empty. It’s an amusing solution, but a little depressing, too.


Among the things I’m missing most are the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence at the factory/atelier of designer Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Chanin brand (www.alabamachanin.com).  These dinners began about five years ago and were my introduction to many chefs whose work was only previously known to me by their reputations and awards. I have met people from all over the world at these events and formed friendships along the way.

Four Friends of the Café dinner events were scheduled for 2020 and I had tickets to the whole series. The first two were postponed. The rest are up in the air for now. I am a little pessimistic about the likelihood that there will be any trips to Florence for Friends of the Café this year. The dinners also served as fundraisers for notable causes like Southern Foodways Alliance  and Chanin’s Project Threadways.

I have frequently written about these dinners in the past. The ambiance and sense of community they inspire always impressed me. Each featured chef has been on some part of the James Beard Award spectrum and the dinners have become a treasured part of my year.


American Public Television’s “Create” affiliate has aired the PBS show “Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking” (www.finecooking.com/moveablefeast) for a few years now. That program comes as close as anything I’ve found to capturing the spirit of those magical Florence meals. During the pandemic, “Moveable Feast” has become a brief escape for me, reminiscent of a more social time of the recent past.

The show’s title is inspired by a Hemingway title and quote about Paris in the 1920s. Each episode features a different location – sometimes American, sometimes international. The program host introduces the location and a couple of chefs from the area. They visit local purveyors to choose what to prepare for that evening’s “feast.”

Then it’s off to the kitchen where the host and guest chefs prepare their recipes for a pop-up communal meal. The show has always been appealing; nowadays, the sight of convivial guests gathering, hugging, shaking hands, toasting, and sitting down to have a meal together evokes bittersweet nostalgia.

“Create” showcased hours-long blocks of “Moveable Feast” episodes over the weekend and I found myself drawn to them – even though I had already viewed most of them. I was most pleased to revisit a charming episode in which host Michelle Bernstein visits and cooks with Jeremiah Tower, a godfather of California cuisine, in his current hometown of Merrida, Mexico. The occasionally prickly Tower, whose memoir California Dish is among my favorite books on food, exudes immaculate charm and wit as he shows Bernstein around the town and introduces her to a wealth of local ingredients and their knowledgeable purveyors.

In another favorite, host Pete Evans attends an event of “Outstanding in the Field” (www.outstandinginthefield.com), a roving pop-up restaurant event founded by artist Jim Denevan. The guest chef is Ravi Kapur and the site is Secret Sea Cove on the California coast. Guests at the table closest to the ocean get a gentle foot soaking as the tide moves in during the magical feast.

I was interested in what “Outstanding in the Field” is up to during the pandemic and found a moving letter from Jim Denevan on the website. He explains that the project is on hiatus until 2021 and concludes, “The table will be set. It will have been a long time coming. We are looking forward.”

In the milky sunset of a Saharan-influenced dusk, I will only add “Amen.”

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.