Opinion

OPINION | TED TALLEY: How a visit to Crystal Bridges transported me to 1950s Louisiana

Meditation links 1950s Louisiana to 2023 Bentonville

Some years ago and well before Alice Walton broke ground on her namesake school of medicine, I attended an informative meeting in the Great Hall at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art where Ms. Walton's friend and mind-and-body health proponent Deepak Chopra appeared before a few hundred museum members.

The group meditation part of the presentation proved to be revealing. In merely three or four minutes, I realized not only the value of meditation but also an appreciation for the lasting benefits from what others have done for me during my life.

Following instructions to attendees and with eyes closed, I searched for a special moment in my life. Several seconds elapsed and then, absent logic, I found my mind zooming back to 1955 or so, when I was 5 or 6 years old.

I was outside the small, rural brick Baptist church our family attended. The church, still standing today, is less than two miles through the woods west of the Pearl River, which forms the border with Mississippi in that corner of Louisiana's "big toe." The bare church grounds were hard-packed river bottom dirt and sand. It was vacation Bible school time. We youngsters were lined up to march into the sanctuary for the opening ceremony behind the older ones, including my big sister. In those days VBS included all ages, even through high school, so two older boys and a girl led up front with the U.S. flag, the Christian flag and a large Bible. In those processions we sang simple children's hymns like "Jesus Loves Me" or the one with lyrics "...red and yellow, black or white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world." But this was 1950s American apartheid; children of other colors were elsewhere.

I looked down at my feet clad in brown-strapped sandals in a popular mid-century style, like Buster Brown school shoes but vented. This was rural, agrarian Deep South, not yet a generation separated from the Great Depression. Some children in line were barefoot; clearly the post-World War II economic boom had not reached some families. As an older cousin and New York City labor attorney once shared about our homeland, this spot is where you leave behind the Mediterranean (New Orleans) and enter the real South.

The specific memory that unfolded in my meditation among this roomful of mostly strangers was personal and a bit other-worldly. I drifted to VBS snack time when the mothers served us red Kool-Aid and cookies from large bags of store-bought assortments: vanilla crèmes, Oreo look-alikes, chocolate chips with scant chips, daisy-shaped butters with holes in the center and square, ribbed ones containing teeny shreds of coconut. We were served at picnic tables under a small stand of trees that served as the dinner-on-the-grounds fellowship place. One lady had a distinctive print dress arrayed with tiny purple flowers.

Abruptly my trip ended when Dr. Chopra asked us to open our eyes. He requested feedback. What were you thinking about? Where did your mind take you?

Two or three in the audience responded. Their experiences seemed more dramatic, even esoteric, compared to my journey to Bush, Louisiana.

There was a pause. I tentatively raised a hand, shared my story and asked "Why would such a very ordinary scene in my life embed itself then resurface like that?"

"It is simple," he responded. "In that moment you felt safe and cared for."

Last week five of my grandchildren attended vacation Bible school at First United Methodist Church in Bentonville. Papa's duty was to retrieve them at noon and deliver them home each day.

VBS at such a large, current day Bentonville church is quite different than it was in 1955 among the pines edging toward swamps where I grew up. On the rides home I quizzed them about their activities. It was heart-lifting to hear such happy reports. And their snacks included juice, grapes and granola, healthier than my red-dye punch and Oreo-wannabe cookies almost 70 years ago.

When I picked them up one day, they squealed with delight. My big, blue classic convertible was parked outside the church. They love cruising in Papa's LTD with the top down.

Ironically these babies of a blended family are part Hispanic and part Asian, so skin tones listed in my childhood hymn apply. I pray when they are my age they'll remember these moments when they were safe and cared for. Not only does Jesus love the little children, but family and church community do as well.

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