toni mcnaron's garden


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.

Feisty and generous, wise and funny and loving

When I was a freshman at the University of Alabama in 1954, I met Dot Thomas when we both pledged the same sorority. Over the 67 years we’ve known each other, we have been in solid touch except for the worst part of my alcoholic drinking when I wasn’t a good friend to anyone, and six months after I came out to her as a lesbian and she needed a few months to absorb that news. When Dot had her first child, she asked me to be her godmother, a role I delayed playing until I sobered up but have thoroughly enjoyed fulfilling for about forty years now. When Dot fell in love with a lovely Dominican Republic man, I was the first person she told since she knew my committed relationship was seen as “wrong” by the dominant culture, just as was hers to a black man. I rejoiced for her and was delighted to meet him when he came to Huntsville, AL, to meet her family/friends there.

For many years now, Dot and I have begun our mornings exchanging short e-mails reporting how much sleep we’d just gotten, sharing fun or odious things ahead of us in a day, debating about how important the man-ness of Jesus is to each of our Christian faith lives, screaming about Republican politicians with ideas stuck in a hard past we both recognize for the racist morass it is. While I remembered her bout with kidney cancer some twenty years ago, I was still unprepared for it to recur a few years ago, this time in her trachea/lungs. Dot was so. pleased that the oncologist who had successfully handled the original cancer was still in practice, so she began undergoing chemotherapy with his caring oversight. As I watched from a distance as my dear friend’s energy to exercise and get her “steps” every day waned, I just prayed the drugs would stop the cells from growing. About two months ago, her doctor stopped treating the tracheal cancer because that treatment wasn’t working. So he returned to finding drugs developed to address advanced kidney cancer. These had horrible side effects that debilitated Dot, leaving her exhausted physically and emotionally. About a month ago, she stopped all treatment and enrolled in a hospice program, giving up her apartment in order to move in with her younger daughter since it was getting harder for Dot to feel safe alone, especially at night.

This morning, I learned that my beloved friend had finally been able to slip away quietly, ending the very hard ordeal that led to her death. Needless to say, Dot’s dying leaves a serious hole in my heart. Now no one alive has known me as long as she has, so there is the inevitable loss of shared stories from college days when we were both very “bad girls” right up to the present when she was known to tell her minister when his sermons were sanctimonious or just boring, or to help me control my rage at the latest absurdity in national politics. But this is not about what I’m losing. It’s about rejoicing that my friend is finally free of struggle and pain. I gather from her daughters that her passing was as quiet as her last few weeks had been otherwise. So I can only be glad for her. And in an e-mail to some of my close friends who have been supportive of me as I tried to walk this last leg with Dot, I rattled off the first descriptive adjectives I associate with Dot. They are the title here and I am so grateful to have had all these decades to experience each of them coming from her with such energy and ease–feisty and generous, wise and funny and loving. Safe passage, dearest friend, to wherever you’re going next.

George Bush Twenty Years Later

In my lifetime, there have been two presidents whom I think have been better ex-presidents than they were active presidents–Jimmy Carter and George Bush. And on Saturday as the country marked twenty years since the bombing of the Twin Towers, George Bush gave the best speech of his career and one of the strongest speeches by any US President in recent history. He and Laura were at the site in Pennsylvania where the passengers and crew of the hi-jacked plane probably heading to the Capitol fought off the hijackers and prevented their mission. I’m sure journalists and talking heads will analyze this speech for whatever they are looking for, so I just want to share what it is about what Mr. Bush said that moved me deeply, several times to tears.

The language was quiet and specific throughout the speech, accenting obvious things like how our world was altered in some permanent ways that stunningly beautiful morning. Quickly, however, Mr. Bush wanted to remind us that people reached out for the hand that was close by without worrying about to whom it belonged and whether we might agree with them about things political or cultural. Clearly his focus was on unity then versus crushing divisions now, so he kept pairing past and present details, all of which cast shadows on where the country is today. At one point Mr. Bush called the people on that plane that morning a “random group of Americans who became an “extraordinary group of heroes.” Later in the speech, he began his many statements all ending with “That’s the America I know” and I knew he was alluding to the America that Trump has spawned with his racist, xenophobic, misogynist rhetoric. (I am so glad Mr. Bush never uttered his name since the Orange Man is addicted to hearing his name even if it’s being railed against.) What is always powerful about using anaphora–repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of grammatical units–is the cumulative effect that builds with each utterance. So whoever helped write the President’s speech for Saturday understands this rhetorical fact, so when Mr. Bush spoke about an instance of decency and acceptance as a possible response to life in the country today, he suddenly said “That is the America WE know.” I was caught up short because I expected him to say “I” know, so the final statement lingers long after its having been said. By expanding from his own idea of the country to what all of us listening to him can adopt if we so choose, he puts the ball squarely in each of our courts–where it surely belongs if we are to heal from the dangerous breaches happening to our fundamental democratic tenets. That’s his challenge.

Lest I focus only on what George W. Bush said Saturday, let me remind myself that right after the attack on 911, he told the country not to generalize to all Muslims. We had been attacked by specific fanatical Muslims, he said, not by the thousands of Muslims living in our towns and cities. He went even further by attending a Mosque and being photographed with an Imam. And I know all too well that the same president who spoke and acted in support of inclusivity said things and enacted policies that hurt the very diverse groups he was praising. But none of us is perfect, and all of us are better than our worst acts, as people like Sister Prejean reminds us every so often when she speaks about her work with death row criminals. So I thank Mr. Bush for instructing his speech writer(s) about the tone he wanted to sound; and especially I thank him for sounding that tone so clearly and unapologetically.

Proximity and Paradox

From earliest childhood–the 1940s in Fairfield, Alabama, I remember there seeing “Negroes” in my house and yard. Needless to say they were there as maids and yard men, paid a pittance and given food and iced tea in dishes/glasses not used by us. But they had names–Josephine inside and Charlie outside–and they played with me and let me “help” them as they worked. My mother’s theory about “colored people” was simple–“her” Negroes were not like “those other people” who were lazy and then got drunk and fought with knives on the weekend. When Josephine needed to see an eye doctor, Mamie (what we called my mother) took her to her own person though Josephine couldn’t ride in the same elevator to get to his office as my mother did. Often, my mother went back to work right after lunch and was read to out of a favorite magazine by Josephine who refused to work until half an hour had passed so that her food could digest properly. And Mamie was fine leaving me in the care of Josephine, whom she exploited by paying her $5.00 a day, when she went off to her garden club or church work group, though she refused ever to let one of the white teenagers in our neighborhood “baby sit” me because she didn’t trust them with her precious child.

I could keep sharing examples of blatant paradoxes around the relationship between my white family and the Black people I knew in my growing up years. What these examples all illustrate, however, is the ultimate paradox that existed between contact and messaging between black and white southerners. Only recently, as I am reading critical race theorists, have I begun to assess how that paradoxical proximity has enabled me to “read” white supremacy differently from some of my white friends who grew up in other parts of the country than the South. In an odd way, my youth and adolescence spent in the cauldron of white supremacy with all its inhumane manifestations has given me clarity about what Black thinkers/writers/activists are working so hard to convey to too many of us whites who have trouble dislodging ourselves from our privileged bubbles.
Because I spent hours every day with Josephine or Charlie, I talked to them about everything, many things I never would have dreamed of saying to my mother or father. So I developed an easiness and familiarity around black people, even as I came to hear more white adults say really demeaning and harmful things about all such individuals. ‘

My patchwork exposure to “racism” turned on a huge paradox: I knew in my very bones that my whiteness meant all sorts of different things from their “colored ness.” (I use “colored” to refer to the non-white people I saw every day because Mamie chastised me severely the day I came home from fourth or fifth grade and said the “n” word: “You must never say that word again, Honey, because it would hurt Josephine’s or Charlie’s feelings.” Having no idea what she was talking about, but loving Josephine and Charlie the tangled way whites often do, I never said the word again.) But I also knew in those same bones that Josephine and Charlie, and by extension other people in their community had lives and ideas, cracked funny jokes with me, taught me all sorts of useful lessons about gardening and cleaning and food preparation. I even knew Josephine had children since her two daughters often came to our house when they weren’t in school and we played together for hours in the side yard.

The limits that proximity couldn’t erase, however, turned on my not knowing anything about what they did when they were not at our house, so their full humanity was denied me because of the system in which we all were trapped. As I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, being in proximity with blacks is hard won for me. But when I find myself with black people, I must fall back into my childhood/teenage years because I have an easy way of talking and relating that often eludes me at white dinner parties or wedding receptions and the like. More importantly, in a perhaps odd way, two words in the phrase “Black Lives Matter” make deep sense to me since some of the important people in that childhood were black and they mattered. The fact that their “lives” were pretty much a blank slate complicates everything about our proximity but it still gives me clarity in many political situations.

I’ll end with just one glaring example of how this works for me in the present. When the Orange Man began to run for president, he uttered his basic slogan “Make America Great Again.” I felt panicked when I first heard him because I flashed to all the white southern governors/mayors/business owners who had said the same thing when they wanted to exclude blacks. It was not anything as subtle as a “dog whistle” to my ears–it was a megaphonic cry that meant millions of my fellow Americans would know what it meant and move into his orbit. My white liberal friends laughed at what a fool he is, but I tried to get them to take him seriously since I knew he had a genuine chance to get elected. After all, all those whites had endured eight long years of watching the wrong colored man light the Christmas tree, free the Thanksgiving turkey, roll the first Easter egg down the expansive lawn, and speak at the podium in the Rose Garden where he was supposed to be walking around with a tray of goodies.

So I am coming to understand those early years with Josephine and Charlie in a new and deeper, more complex light. And, once again, I am feeling at home in the midst of an unsolvable but powerful paradox.


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