toni mcnaron's garden

A Walk-about with the Blind Boys of Alabama

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) has recently begun airing a new program launched by National Public Radio (NPR).  It’s called 1A and its host is Joshua Johnson.  Joshua has eclectic tastes in both subject matter and guests, so I always benefit from hearing bits and pieces as I drive around doing errands on a given morning.  This past week, he had one of the surviving original Blind Boys of Alabama as his main guest.  Listening to him set me off on a fascinating chain of thought.  One of Joshua’s questions was about what it was like for the black singers to star in a highly successful Broadway production that came to Minneapolis and played to large and enthusiastic audiences at the Guthrie Theatre in its original location adjacent to the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis.  It was called “Gospel at Colonus” and told the story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who blinded himself after learning that he had killed his father and married his mother.  After the program was over, I made an obvious connection between these Gospel singers and a wonderful discussion group I host in my living room.  This group of 10-12 adults formed to read Shakespeare, but when they had explored virtually every word the Bard wrote, refused to disband.  Instead, they asked me if I’d facilitate discussions of Greek drama.  Because I didn’t want to stop listening to them, I agreed, though it had been many decades since I’d given serious thought to the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes.  We just ended our fall set of evenings by have two intense discussions of Sophocles’ first play, “Oedipus the King.”  Now, I was getting ready to talk about the second one, “Oedipus at Kolonus.” 

Of course, I did some on-line research about the “Gospel at Colonus” and sent links to the study group, reminding them that some of them might have seen the local staging in 1987.  All that afternoon last week, I kept being back in that audience of overwhelmingly white Minneapolitans as we listened spell-bound to four blind black men circulate the part of Oedipus and sing the iconic tragedy to rousing Gospel melodies.  I had gotten tickets because I grew up in Alabama from which I fled the minute that was possible.  Most of the time, I felt some mixture of shame, embarrassment, and anger about how my home state was behaving around race, gender, or sexual orientation.  But I could feel pride about being from the same place as an internationally recognized singing group–and, of course, I’d grown up hearing Gospel music in my kitchen sung by the “Negro maid” who worked in our home and on 45 RPM records bought against my mother’s better judgment since such music wasn’t “classical.”  I can shut my eyes and see five tall, lean black men in simple suits walk out onto the Guthrie stage to a wildly cheering audience.  They walked in a line with a leader followed by the other three who placed their left hands on the shoulder in front of them to make their way onto the stage:  Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Eric (Ricky) McKinnie, and Paul Beasley.  As they stood and told us the agonies felt by an ancient Greek blind man who refused not to know his identity, I kept time with the music and cried.

This group had met as children when they were students at a place called the Alabama Institute for the Blind Negro  in Talladega, Alabama.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I was told a little about this school in a history course.  The Institute was founded in 1858 by a young medical doctor who wanted a place for his deaf brother to go so he could become educated.  The first “class” had two boys in it but grew to 22 by the end of its first year.  Today, operating under the new name of Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB), the school has eight regional centers in addition to the original campus in Talladega and teaches more than 22,000 people of all ages (from toddlers to seniors) who are deaf or blind or multi-disabled.   The five early students began singing as a chorus in the school, performing at assemblies there but quickly broadening their sights to include local black churches who welcomed them with loving arms.  Eventually some white man in the music business heard them and met with them with a proposal to cut a single record.  This record sold well to both black and white people, though the group was not invited to sing “live” before any white audiences for some time. 

In the seven decades in which the Blind Boys of Alabama have performed stirring gospel music here and in many other countries, they have amassed fived Grammy’s and won the hearts of thousands of people from all walks of life.  Only two of the original group still sings–Clarence Fountain (87) and Jimmy Carter (85).  (The other founders are Johnny Fields, Olice Thomas, and Val Bozman Traylor).  As Joshua Johnson talked with Clarence, he asked him to trace the path from being unable to perform in white venues to where the group is today.  It’s clear from the words spoken and the timbre of his voice, that Clarence Fountain has made peace with just about everything wrong with American racial attitudes and policies.  But he also refuses to gloss over history, so when Johnson asked him what it was like to be shut out of white performance spaces, the reply was “Well, it seems like a lot of white people liked our music–they just wouldn’t let us come sing it for them.”  This was accompanied by a wry verbal “smile” that made its ironic point just fine.  The last question from the 1A host had to do with what Clarence Fountain might say about how the Blind Boys were able to break through engrained prejudice and bigotry against black artists.  He was quiet for a moment before saying something I’ve typed out and put on my refrigerator:  “What comes from the heart reaches the heart.” 

So my walk-about through my long knowledge and appreciation of these consummate musicians has taken me to this very present moment when so many people seem incapable of listening to anyone who doesn’t exactly mirror our own attitudes and beliefs.  Surely Clarence has given me a little mantra I can try to hone as I cope with the latest hurtful and destructive policy emanating from the White House in Washington D.C.  I can try to speak from my heart and hope that what I say can reach someone else’s.  And, much harder, I can try to hear what someone else says if they tell me it emanates from their heart and not from some spoon-fed sloganeer or cowardly politician.  And on February 22nd, when the study group convenes to talk about how Sophocles wrote a second play in which the isolated and despondent old king is redeemed, I will include the five black men in our circle because they belong there most assuredly.

The Reluctant But Grateful Gerbil

Two weeks of this January have been so far below zero both in actual temperature and wind chill that I have had to walk at my local YWCA.  My days begin with an early morning walk of about a mile and a half, rain or shine.  I walk in the street rather than on the sidewalk because my excellent chiropractor told me thirty years ago to do that if I wanted to be walking when I was eighty.  It seems asphalt is much more “forgiving” than is concrete.  Anyway, on those mornings when I could have gotten frost bite in 10-15 minutes, I’ve driven the six minutes to my Y and walked the same amount of time/distance as I would have done outside.  I know I’m supposed to feel grateful to have a warm facility so close to my house where I pay nothing to belong now that I qualify for the Silver Sneakers program.  But I have to work to get to gratitude.

When I’m outside, there are people walking their dogs.  I’ve seen one dog grow into a huge black and brown adult from the days when he was a little pup.  Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to meet up with one of the two shiba inu dogs that lives in my neighborhood.  For truth in advertising, I need to say that I am a total cat person who often doesn’t delight in seeing the next canine.  But these Japanese tan alert little dogs who so resemble foxes are something I can’t resist.  If I ever had a dog, it would be a shiba inu for sure.  Finally, I see very old dogs some with grizzled muzzles and bodies that limp or look stiff even to the naked eye. 

In addition to all these dogs with their two-footed parents, I pass clumps of little children waiting for the big yellow school bus, playing and making happy noise while their parents converse in their own clumps.  Over the years, I’ve watched the demographics of such adult groups shift from mostly mothers to mostly fathers, and registered what a positive sign that is about co-parenting in the houses I pass every morning.

In early spring, I hear the first mating calls of cardinals or see the first cadre of robins scouting out the territory before telling their fellows it’s good in South Minneapolis again.  Always there are squirrels and the occasional kitty let out early by its keepers.  Once I was graced by seeing a small real fox who froze when s/he saw me.  I froze while we just stood and eyed one another as I tried to send out gentle energy that seemed to succeed because the fox let me pass slowly in front of it without fleeing into the surrounding bushes and I thanked her/him for sensing just how much I exulted in our convergence.  Spring also brings new signs of growth as I watch trees and shrubs and then bulbs of all sorts make initial appearances and slowly but surely come to resplendent life.

When extreme cold drives me to the Y track, I simply put one foot in front of the other in whatever direction I’m told to go that morning.  There is nothing to break up my movement, no sensory connections or familiar images.  I merely get the physical exercise attendant upon walking the mile plus.  If I think about how I feel, it’s always the same:  I feel like a large gerbil in a sanitized cage.  It’s become clear to me that I set out each morning not just for the physical exertion–I crave the connections to people, other living creatures, and nature’s flora.  These aspects of my regimen are what nourish and sustain me for the day ahead of me.  My body, then, is reluctantly grateful to the Y for a warm place to exercise its muscles and feel limber as I go home to breakfast.  But my soul is expansively grateful to that larger world of the streets in my neighborhood and the life I relish therein.

Wasting Precious Time

When I sobered up after nineteen years of serious alcoholic drinking, the first coherent thought I remember having is: “What a waste of valuable time.”  What I meant by that lament was simple–though I had lots of ideas about literature, I had not been able to write any articles or books to progress my career as a professor of English at a major Midwestern university.  Gradually, the mental fog lifted and I began putting words onto paper and have been doing that ever since.  That was forty-three years ago and I’m now beginning to live out my eighties as a retired professor who still has lots of ideas about literature.  Now I also have ideas about a lot more, e.g., white supremacy in all its guises, the world of dance both classical and modern, politics, the world outside my windows, memories of my life in the past, and how I practice my beliefs in God and Jesus.

In 2015, when I learned that my aorta had closed in upon itself to a dangerous degree and surgery was required, I underwent a valve replacement and now happily carry around in my chest the membrane from some generous cow.  A remarkable recovery led me to define what had happened as a “heart event,” suggesting something that occurred but came to an end.  In the past year, however, events and tests and words from my excellent cardiologist have changed the word I need to use and inhabit from “event” to “condition.”  Conditions are on-going and inconclusive, and they require attention and at times adjustments.  So my heart condition will accompany me for the remainder of my days on this earth; I have a “new normal” that is affecting me in surprising ways, some of which hinge on my ideas about time.

Though I have learned to write more than I could when drunk every night, I still do not write as often or deeply as I would like.  Recently, I decided I probably didn’t need to undertake more book-length projects.  With encouragement from family and friends, I hired someone to design a web site for me that included a “blog.”  Though periodically I promise myself to write a new blog more often, I tend to drift back into extended periods of silence.  But this heart condition reality is pushing me onto new ground.   My newest resolution was to write a new blog at least once a month, but my mind teems with many more subjects than the twelve that decision would create.  The other day, as I was thinking again about ways I am experiencing mortality, a phrase came to me complete and clear:  “You are wasting precious time.”  So, all these years after I began to rediscover myself and felt I was wasting “valuable” time, I have come to view that time I’m wasting as “precious.”  The difference surely comes from my recognition that I am living on what I consider to be “gift time,” and that, given that miraculous fact, I must behave differently.  I want to stop pretending that I can begin to write more of what rushes around in my brain next year or next month or even next week.  I want to order my thoughts and feelings and send them out to the admittedly tiny group of faithful friends who read my blog.  Of course I love it when one of them writes me something after reading the latest entry, even if it’s to urge me to correct some misspelled word or smooth out an infelicitous phrase.  But I want to write these little pieces to feel like a me that I have stifled too often and for too long. 

The time before me is precious because it can no longer be taken for granted.

Happy Birthday, Jesus

Every year, I set up a crèche in my living room, an act that gives me tremendous pleasure.  Creches are supposed to focus on the manger scene with Mary and Joseph looking down on a crib housing the baby Jesus.  These little collections may include the three Magi with flashy gifts; some have an ox and ass or cow.  My crèche bears no resemblance to that pattern.  Rather it mirrors a beautiful poem by John Milton, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.”  This poem devotes only four or five short stanzas to the actual birth while the majority of this extended poem is about the effects of that moment on the world in which it occurred and on the world in which Milton lived. 

That’s how it is with my little thatched house.  Tucked away in the back are tiny terra cotta figures of Mary, Joseph, one cow, one ox, and a very tiny crib with an infinitesimal babe in it.  I found these little figures decades ago in a shop in Paris near St. Sulpice church.  My crèche tells a story about how a few people and scads of animals and birds have come to stand in amazement as they realize what the tableau inside the manger is going to mean.  Some of my figures are expensive, e.g., two magical old women made in Germany, a tiny sterling silver rabbit, a stately bronze stag with a wide rack of delicately carved horns.  Most of my visitors, however, are delightful ornaments contributed by friends or found by me over a span of about 40 years:  a fluffy yellow camel bought at a fund-raiser for some worthy cause; a wooden white and black cow resting on her feet; a very pink china pig that was part of a friend’s own childhood collection; a white wooden cat who has lost his two stick arms but who still wants to be present at this strange moment in human history; a bright tiny china puffin from Iceland; literally scores of cows, chickens, kitties, turtles, horses, owls, cardinals, and pigs.  The oldest piece is a faded orange pre-plastic camel that was part of my first crèche given me by my mother when I was four and set up every year on a shelf in our living room where I could sit and move the various pieces around as long as I wanted to do so.

Children who come to my house are fascinated by this set up.  Two little girls next door used to ask me around Thanksgiving “When are you going to set up your house?”  When they were too little to see the high bookcase ledge, I’d let them stand on a chair so they could see all the little animals.  Adults who look at my menagerie respond along a wide continuum:  some “get it” about what I’m doing with the whole jumbled assortment; others wonder about the seriousness of my Christian observance; and some see how delighted I am so they indulge me by looking for or even bringing new additions.

What am I doing?  Certainly the birth of Jesus of Nazareth came to have a tremendous impact on the world around him and on the future of western thought and worship.  My amassed and expanding motley crew attests to my firm belief that humans are not the center of the universe; we merely inhabit and share it with the rest of creation.  St. Francis of Assisi understood this, even learning to speak with the animals and birds in the woods around him.  Many philosophers and aestheticians believe that at some stage of evolution, all species could comprehend one another.  I believe we lost more than we gained by coming to separate ourselves from the rest of sentient beings, so I bring more and more silly and beautiful animals to my manger.  The December after the election of Pope Francis, I felt hopeful enough to add a beautifully carved wooden figure of his particular saint.  My delicately carved wooden  figure stands tall and has a tiny white dove perched on one finger of his left hand.  He fits right in with my bunnies and chicks and camels and pigs. 

So happy birthday to the baby who grew into a kind and wise man who encouraged us to see God in every living being we met, whether that being had two legs or four or just gills or wings.


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