toni mcnaron's garden


Twenty-six years ago, I began co-ordinating a program offered at my university (University of Minnesota) for bright high school seniors. The course is taught in their high schools by their teachers and carries university-level credits recognized by colleges and universities such students attend. This excellent educational program is called College in the Schools and I was Co-ordinator of the Literature offering. When I assumed this role, the program had been led by a professor in the English Department who was not fully committed to either the curriculum or the teachers, so morale was quite low. One of the veteran teachers was good enough to tell me this and ask that I spend time immediately trying to improve that morale so more excellent teachers wouldn’t leave because they felt undervalued by the man in charge. Today, twenty-six years later, College in the Schools Literature (CIS Lit) is the largest of the thirty-something disciplines the University offers. Each year, about 1,000 students enroll from about fifty schools in Minnesota.

In my thirty-seven years as a professor in the English Department, I made two last friendships with women colleagues, and was warm friends with several men who were able to accept me and my intellectual interests. But the department and I never truly shared priorities. For me, my energies were directed first to teaching young people to love good writing, second to pursuing my own research interests, and third to being a citizen in my department. The department value research first, research second, and teaching/service a distant third. I came to know and value faculty in a college called General College, established for women and men who had not gone directly from high school to college because of work or family or both. But the University neglected that college until they closed it completely, so once again, I understood that my priorities were not in alignment with the institution that I employed me.

When I begin my work in CIS Lit, the women and men who were teaching the course in their schools were so eager to strengthen their pedagogical strategies when I talked about new ways of engaging young learners; they wanted to read new books by and about a growing body of multi-cultural writers; they wanted me to help me learn about critical approaches to those writers; they wanted to share best practices with each other rather than hanging on to successful techniques in an effort to benefit their own positions. They wanted me to help them establish and maintain community as what they needed most to thrive in their schools. Because I was so excited finally to have found a group of people who did share my priorities, I have worked as hard as I possibly could to answer those rigorous requests from the cohort.

Recently, I attended my last professional development meeting with the teachers before stepping back so a superb colleague can take on the role of co-ordinator of the course. I was to give my usual lecture on a critical approach–intergenerational trauma and its connections to the two original sins of this country–genocidal treatment of Indigenous peoples and enslavement of black people brought here from Africa and then spawned here through rapes of black women by white landowners. Then we were to have a good-bye lunch where I said my formal goodbye and the teachers had an opportunity to share a favorite memory connected with me. It was intense and beautiful and so loving for all involved. I knew almost immediately what I wanted to say to these wonderful women and men. So I told them that they had given me the only community I had had in connection with my decades of working at the University of Minnesota. That is because they put first and foremost what I tried to put first and foremost when I was teaching my own courses. We all want young learners to become adept at reading words written by writers determined to push the language into new areas and new linguistic formations. They want those same young learners to listen to themselves and their fellows rather than relying on some sage at the front of the room to offer intellectual colonialization by pouring great truths into the minds of the unlearned and unwashed. They are modeling for their students the deep value of literature and the arts in general to saving our world from impulses that divide and frighten one group in relation to other groups. And, perhaps most important of all, these teachers have met me every step of the way for these twenty-six years, pushing me to push them so we all keep growing.


For over twenty years, my neighbors to the north of me have been part of my chosen family. Ten years younger than I am, they have assured me they’d stay in place till I was gone. We have keys to each other’s homes; they let me cut out the crossword puzzle six mornings a week which means they never read the end of some articles in that section of the local paper. He and I share watching backyard birds whom we feed all year. He and I love to garden and compare which of his newly planted bulbs come up while my similar ones often do not. She and I meet early mornings when she’s out being quiet as the day begins and I arrive with my little scissors to collect the puzzle.

About a month ago, they told me they are moving back to D.C. where they lived and worked before becoming my neighbors. They want to stop shoveling snow and keeping up a two-story house; they have found lodging at a lovely complex open to former officers in the armed service where he served when a young man. I accept that this is the right decision for them, even as I grieve losing important people with whom I have a long and rich history.

Recently as he and I shared lunch in my dining room, I saw the bidding site set up by a group that helps people get rid of household items. Hundreds of photographs were on the website and I even saw current bids. We laughed because things they know are valuable often had tiny bids, while things they considered trivial or even junky garnered double digit contests. We agreed there truly is no accounting for taste.

The bidding ended a couple of days ago and today was the day folks were to come collect their booty. So since about 9:00 this morning, a parade of cars, trucks, and vans have parked along our street as their owners brought out one or two items and drove away. I stopped looking out because I was too sad. Sad because this parade makes the move real to me; there’s no going back now. Also sad because their loved household objects are being divided and so their life here has lost its coherence. She just told me it feels like they will be sort of camping here, just as they are camping in their new space in D.C. as they drive out and test to see what kinds of new objects will fit in a small smaller living area.

I am working hard to be excited for them, especially for my bird/garden buddy, since he tells me how this feels like starting over. He seems younger when he talks to me about buying new things that are very different from their old things. So, as his good friend, I want to be excited for him. So I talk about my sadness with friends since I know he knows how I feel. At our recent lunch, he asked me if I’d like his most beautiful brass whirlagig that I’ve commented on to him often as it twirls its flashing parts in the wind as we lunch in their gazebo in their back yard when it’s warm. Of course I want the whirlagig.

One of the tangible things he has done all these years is coming over whenever my computer does something I don’t understand and cannot fix, or when my television won’t work the way it’s supposed to. Sometimes all he has to do is touch something on the keyboard and all is well. He assures me I can still FaceTime him and he’ll try and talk me through the problem, but I realize part of the pleasure of his help comes from his knocking on my front door and being in my space. I may get help but without the proximity that I so cherish.

By summer, these two fine people will be gone. I will have many sustaining memories of his and my exclaiming over the pileated woodpecker we both saw the only time one such magical bird graced our feeders. Or his willingness to come over at lunch time to give my beloved kitty, Patches, her tiny lunch when I’m out of town. Or our jumping when early acorns fell noisily onto the gazebo roof as we were having lunch in the sunshine. Or wondering if there would be another season of “Endeavor” or “Foyle’s War” or our other favorite Mysteries on PBS. Finally, we have agreed that we will keep having “lunch” but on Zoom, with him in D.C. and me in my dining room.

Ahmaud Arbery Verdict

A lot of words have been spoken about the verdict of the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery as he was jogging in their neighborhood in Georgia. The white female prosecutor has been praised by some and criticized by others for not making more argument about race. Pundits have pointed to the irony attached to the fact that one of the three accused men put his video of the pursuit and shooting on the Internet because he thought he and the other two had acted to preserve safety in “our neighborhood.”

I have not read much at all about the make-up of the jury. When I first heard that there were nine white women and three men, one of whom was black, I thought to myself “How has the defense let this happen–why didn’t they prevent nine women from being seated. My response comes from decades of “reading” my culture from a feminist lens (among others). All of those women either are mothers or could be mothers–so I figured. As they watched even a grainy video of a young man who was jogging one minute and dead on the pavement the next minute, I felt pretty sure they would flash to the possibility of losing a child who had or could have lived inside them. That reaction would push to a back burner whatever ideas they might have inherited about black people–so I figured. As closing arguments were made and the jury retired to deliberate, some of my friends felt sure the men would be found not guilty, given eleven white people at the table making life-changing decisions. I held to my original hunch and waited.

As life would have it, I tuned in to CSpan just as the jury was returning to render their Verdict, so I got to hear the calm judge say “Guilty” twenty-nine times! When a defense attorney asked for a voice vote, I listened very closely to hear how each of my nine white mothers would speak her “Yes, your Honor.” What I heard was the same clear resolve I had marveled at a few month earlier here in Minneapolis as twelve jurors responded with resolute “yeses” to having found Derek Chovin guilty of murdering George Floyd. There could be no doubt about how firmly each white woman found the three white men guilty of killing Mr. Arbery, who for them had become some mother’s son whose life was a precious, a classification that superseded all others.


In my Anglo-Catholic tradition, today, November 28th, is the beginning of a season particularly dear to me–Advent. From today until December 25th, I work to quiet myself as I wait for the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, whom I believe was a special human who advocated for a new kind of world–one based in love and hospitality and forgiveness, one where all were seen as equally important to God, where whatever status symbols existed then, like skin color and zip codes today, did not shut one off from the promises spelled out so carefully by great Jewish prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. At services on each of the four Sundays in Advent, I sing the same processional hymn, “Take Comfort, My People,” all about trusting that the tired old world can and will turn to the new light coming into a world too focused on dark forces that divide and conquer through force. At my present church, a huge and stunning basilica in Minneapolis, a giant wreath has been magically suspended from the ceiling at the very center of the church. This wreath has four large lanterns in which a single candle is positioned. Someone lights one of these each week, again magically as far as I can determine, and we begin the service by facing the center and affirming the coming light with its new message about how to live.

We are encouraged to resist the capitalistic appropriation of Christmas as we spend extra time just sitting quietly and thinking about what it might mean if more of us practiced the principles set down over and over by the carpenter from Nazareth, who kept saying he was the “prince of peace,” not a king wishing to control people for personal gains. I do this by reading the Psalms, written by one of the great poets of the western world. And I keep a little notebook handy so I can make notes of phrases or ideas in the individual psalms that appeal to or challenge me. This year, I have a new little notebook given to me by a special friend, so I feel especially grateful as I make my first marks on its pages. This practice, known as lecto divino goes back to the middle ages when monks kept similar jottings as they did their daily meditational readings. All this is to slow me down. And, as the world around me begins to focus on its notions of “Christmas” before we’ve engaged in “trick or treat,” I value what I know about the import of Advent more than ever.

And this year, the same day my faith world lights our first of four candles, my Jewish friends will light their first Chanakah candles tonight, so the crucial connection between these two sets of beliefs is even tighter than usual. I will soon put up my own creche, which is mostly animals/birds/sea creatures given to me by friends over decades. I have a little building at the back of which are tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, but my creche celebrates how this unusual birth catches the spirits of non-human beings who delight in such a tiny figure’s having such an impact on the imaginations and lives of so many since he first cried and suckled his mother’s breast.


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