MAHALIA JACKSON BIRTHDAY MIRACLE PORTLAND 2005
Life is full of strange coincidences and minor miracles so much so that we often brush them aside as soon as we recognize them. Occasionally however you get hit upside the head with a two-by-four of synchronicity that is so extreme, inexplicable, and seemingly meaningful that you find yourself retelling the tale throughout your life. This is the story of one of those special experiences.
In 2005 I was attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art here in my home city of Portland, OR. At the time I had a job at the school working as the weekend supervisor of the wood shop. It so happened that my birthday that year fell on a Saturday so I would begin my special day at school working in the shop.
As was often the case in that era I usually found myself wracked with anxiety about my birthdays as they approached: What am I doing with my life? How did it come to this? I’m getting old! Oh god! Oh sh-t! Oh noooo!…that kind of thing. Almost always though I’d find that once the actual day arrived a sense of new possibility and a lightness of spirit would push away and take the place of the dark clouds that had been gathering in the preceding days. This birthday was no exception.
I woke up that sunny spring day with a bounce in my step and a song in my heart…literally. When I had gotten out of bed that morning I found myself humming the words and melody of “In The Upper Room” by one of my very favorite voices of all time, the great Mahalia Jackson. As I gathered my lunch and some C.D.’s (no ipod yet) to listen to in the shop that day I made a special point to grab my Mahalia Jackson Gospels, Spirituals, and Hymns box set so I could start the day listening to the song I’d woken up singing.
The work day got off to a great start when the first face I saw was that of one of my dearest friends and a true light of my life, the lovely Barbara Kinzle who had come to hang out with me and work on a project that morning. Barb and I chatted, I opened up the place, turned on the lights and fans, popped the second disc of the Mahalia box set into the CD player and pressed play.
As the piano notes of In The Upper Room and Mahalia’s mighty voice began to fill the room I went to unlock the safety lock on the tablesaw’s on/off switch but I couldn’t find the key in its usual hanging place by the door. The saw was crucial to the day’s projects so I set out to search the big building to see if I could find another tech who might know the key’s whereabouts.
I walked the length of the building, through the ceramics lab, the Manuel Izquierdo Gallery, the metal shop and back toward the studios where the techs and artists-in-residence worked. As I rounded the corner I slowed to a stop as I tried to understand the origin of the sound filling my ears…
…what the…how the…?
…how was it that the song In The Upper Room by Mahalia Jackson, the same song I was listening to across the building on a boom box, could be heard so well in the studios tucked back behind the metal shop? It was impossible…
I stood there dumbfounded for a minute before I walked on further to investigate. By the time I found the current artist-in-residence Brenda Mallory at work in her studio I had forgotten all about the key to the tablesaw and instead I asked her what might’ve seemed a strangely obvious question:
Are you listening to In The Upper Room by Mahalia Jackson?
She could tell by the expression on my face that I was having a moment and she answered affirmatively, if a bit hesitantly. I asked her to follow me to the wood shop because I had something to show her and she did.
As we walked back across the building the sound of the song playing in her studio grew faint and disappeared just as the sound of the same song coming from the wood shop started to become audible. By the time we walked into the room the look on Brenda’s face had turned from one of curiosity to one of amazement.
Unbeknownst to one another we had pressed play on the same song by the same artist on different ends of the same building only seconds apart!
Keep in mind this wasn’t a current hit song, it hadn’t just appeared on a popular soundtrack, and it wasn’t some top 40 hit from the past either…it was however the song I’d woken up singing that birthday morning: an incredibly powerful seven minute long declaration of identification and devotion of one woman, a woman who possessed one of the greatest voices of the modern era, sung to the God of her understanding, her lord and savior Jesus Christ! (Hallelujah! Amen!) This was the song we were both listening to!
Brenda couldn’t believe it, Barbara couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. It was unbelievable. I mean what are the chances?
It also just struck me how easily this miraculous coincidence might’ve happened without anyone knowing if just one little detail as seemingly trivial as that misplaced tablesaw key had been different!
I was reminded of this story the other day when I saw a post on Brenda’s Facebook page that said that exactly one year to the day she had broken both her arms her husband broke his arm. Weird! I guess some people just attract these strange symmetries!
”Life is not only stranger than we suppose, it’s stranger than we can suppose”
Mahalia Jackson photo from the web.