Tag Archives: Verlyn Klinkenborg

Wallowing | Contemplation: Chilly Scenes of Winter

January 22: It was never my plan to wake up at 5:30 this morning, but I did. Opening the bedroom curtains, a gentle post-rain fog hovered over the street, blurring the street and occasional headlights. Last night I was in the middle of reading a Calvin Tomkins 1970s essay on the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)-designed pavilion for Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. That geodesic-dome architecture was perennially surrounded by Fujiko Nakaya’s installation of artificial water vapor – a thing I would have loved to see.

Being awake in the fog at 5:30 this morning, there seemed no better time to finish the Tomkins essay, so I retrieved the Tomkins book, took a seat by the open window looking over the foggy road, and began to finish the essay as the fog dispersed and the sun eventually shone. The ground was white grey, the trees were frosted, and the mist was frozen.

Eventually the sun broke through with a golden light. A bright red cardinal, lurking in the bushes, flew onto a tree branch. He was transformed, for a moment, into a brilliant golden glow. In the past year, cardinals have become, for me, some kind of omen.

So was this one.


Such contemplative moments are a luxury always, but today – at the beginning of a welcome new administration in the Oval Office – they are especially cherished.

I think that most of us have taken on a more philosophical mindset during these months of relative isolation. “Look around you and pay attention” was a directive I often gave to acting and directing students and it’s a directive I find myself following closely in this challenging period of an early COVID-driven retirement.

It seems that, in these moments of privation, I am drawn to things that try to make sense of our challenges. I seek escapism, but also those things that make sense of this current moment in time.


COVID19 SUTRAS, by Hank Lazer, is a new book of poems and sutra-like meditations that deals with our cultural isolation, division, and longing in ways that inspire, incite, and calm the soul.

Intimations, the new book of COVID-inspired essays by Zadie Smith, gives a sort of skeptical hope. Smith — intuitively – knows the landscape, but approaches it with humor, acid, and civility. She remains among my favorite living authors. Her thoughts on our current time lend strength.

Don DeLillo’s The Silence is a brief and pointed novel – written before the pandemic – about a time when social entitlements are suddenly, inexplicably, withdrawn. What happens, DeLillo wonders, when electronic assumptions fail and society is left to wander, cluelessly? It is significant, I think, that DeLillo’s cultural deprivation occurs on a Super Bowl Sunday.

The Silence was most evocative, to me, of Edward Albee’s 1966 play, A Delicate Balance. In Albee’s play, a group of individuals comes together in incomprehensible fear of something existential and undefined.

In a recent New Yorker, Lawrence Wright’s intense investigation of COVID19 and the American response – “The Plague Year” – provides insight into a real-life crisis of existence and our current moment that can’t be wished away.


The bookshelf landscape is not completely bleak, however. One grey morning this week, I was reading Verlyn  Klinkenborg and Calvin Tomkins near the bank of the Flint River in southeast Madison County.

There is strength in the essays of Verlyn Klinkenborg. His essays on “The Rural Life” in the New York Times were an anticipated feature in my readings of that newspaper through the years and I am now making my way through the sequel, More Scenes from the Rural Life. I also look forward to reading Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, the chronicle of a family-owned tavern in Buffalo and, especially, Several Short Sentences about Writing, his tome of advice for all writers.

The aforementioned six-volume collection by Calvin Tomkins, The Lives of Artists, is making me most happy. Starting with a profile of Marcel Duchamp in 1962, Tomkins’s essays, spanning seven decades, present a very personal history of art in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.

This crucible year of the 21st Century challenges our strength and stamina. Great writing currently explores it; great writing also provides an escape from the day-to-day obstacles it offers.

At one point in Intimations, Smith writes, “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” That might be true, but in times of stress and change, we often look to the artists for sustenance, understanding, and courage.

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?