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Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

So opens the Negro spiritual sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Nashville’s Fisk University. Within its plaintive melody glints the souls of the oppressed.

The spiritual was first heard around 1862, sung by the enslaved Wallace Willis, sent by his Choctaw freedman owner to work at Oklahoma’s Spencer Academy, a boarding school for the forced assimilation of Choctaw boys. The listener was the school’s superintendent, the Presbyterian minister Alexander Reid, also a trained musician. He perceived this spiritual and others “Uncle Wallace” had composed as far superior to the repertoire that the Fisk Jubilee Singers were taking on tour at that time, and he later sent them copies. Acclaim met their performances in this country and abroad.

Whatever the origins of Steal Away, its lyrics speak of huge yearning for deliverance from oppression, only found in the saving power of Jesus.  

Whether the spiritual had been previously used by enslaved blacks as a code for escape or for secret meetings, whether remembered by “Uncle Wallace” from his experiences confined to his Mississippi plantation, I was unable to discover.

Still the heart-cry echoes of the afflicted around the world:

My Lord, He calls me
He calls me by the thunder
The trumpet sounds within-a my soul
I ain’t got long to stay here

It’s happened again outside my study window: November’s sunshine revealed the initial stripping of my lilac bush, its mottled leaves aproning its base. Yesterday’s gloom had shrouded its lopsided girth, its leaves still holding on like disgruntled dowagers still plucking their eyebrows. Only nail-hard buds tip each branch, with promise of new greening. 

Like the leaves on my lilac bush, I’m being hurtled toward winter, with its with browns, grays, and blacks supplanting autumn’s riotous display of reds and golds. Less daylight, like a vintage camera, will snap short the bug-eaten colors in spent gardens.

As days pass, the cold will tighten its icy tourniquet around flailing energies, shiver steps of dog-walkers, and coat trees and shrubs with filigree caverns and glistening angles. 

More darkness, stealthy as a thief, will snuff out the waning light and plunge us within an electrified world, its artificiality short-changing our perceptions of things.

But there’s a mysterious richness in darkness—an invitation to listen to its silence and be still within the present moment. Like a downy comforter, let it open your imagination, cell by cell, to its cheery warmth, to unseen realms filled with fresh color—they are there.

In the interim, though, my lilac bush will continue dropping its leaves to the bleached grasses below, giving even more prominence to its buds; unlike them, though, I wait for a different kind of spring where the colors never fade—It could take longer than five months.

Spirit, humility, sense of color, and imagination enflesh animal subjects that emerge from the brushes of Mary Burns, watercolorist and educator. Her canvases breathe the souls of these subjects, intuited from Creator God; an uncanny lightness infuses them and quickens respect within viewers. Such has been the élan guiding her continuous development.

Originally from Itapage, Brazil, Mary studied art at the University of Brazil and taught children, from Kindergarten through the fifth grade. Recently, a serendipitous experience brought her to St. Louis where she continues watercoloring in her basement studio. Slowly, word of her expertise and respect for her renderings are drawing notice. Some have watercolors of their deceased pets, as if still alive, painted from photographs, in their homes.

For those interested in meeting this gifted artist and exploring her work, she will have a showing at The Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, located in Kirkwood, Missouri, through the month of July, Monday through Friday. You can only be enriched.

Some samples of her work that touched me:

Available on Amazon

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