Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Katie interviews Katie

Since I don’t see the reporters lining up by the dozen to interview me at the end of the year, I decided to do it myself.  And ask myself the questions reporters never ask me.

1.     What are you most thankful for as the year draws to a close?  The mute button on the TV remote.

2.     What are some things you would like to see less of?  Green bean casserole with mushroom soup, raccoon eyes on young girls, wrinkled cleavage on old women, low-rider pants on young men and comb-overs on  middle-aged. And, oh yes, lengthy election campaigns.  I’d like the election to be next week.

3.     What fuels you?   Gas fuels my car but stimulating conversation or a good book or lecture keeps my inner being primed.

4.     What nurtures your spirit?  I am strengthened by listening to a well-thought out pastoral prayer, in which the prayer-giver gathers the entire congregation present and absent, in his or her arms, in well-chosen words of  praise, petition, and thanksgiving.   When  I have been in the presence of God Almighty,  I don’t need a sermon.

5.     Do you have secret fears?  I have never lost of my fear of fire, so I rarely  burn a candle, any kind, and am tempted togo around blowing out candles in other homes when I am visiting.  It stems back to my childhood when I witnessed the burning of an entire block of business buildings,  several large grain elevators,  some houses, and a lumber yard  behind our house at a time when everything was built of wood, and yet had to be heated night and day  because of the extreme cold in northern Saskatchewan.  As children we were warned about fire constantly and Mother had us place our shoes, side by side, on the rug by our bed ready to jump into in case of fire and we had to jump out the window onto the snow below.

6.     What is most surprising to you as you rush towards ninety?  Some days I feel amazingly young, and I’m back in my youth,  ready to skate with the boys and gossip with the girls.  Other days,  I am  quite ready to start pushing the  daisies with my friends who I bury  with surprising regularity.  I read obituaries always and check ages – how many older than I am, how many younger.  With every new twinge, I know I will be gone in a week.  With every spurt of energy I am ready to aim for a hundred. Like Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of death.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

7.     What are you most proud of having accomplished last year?  I think it was getting a lengthy account of my aunt Aganeta Janzen Block, who spent her entire life in the former Soviet Union and Russia,  enduring  intense suffering as she and her four children were  shipped here and there  as political pawns  of an unfeeling regime.  She suffered 11 years as a slave of the state,   always concerned  first of all about food for her children.  I gave her a legacy.  The response has been great.  As my niece Nancy wrote,  her story puts things in perspective when one is tempted to whine and moan about modern hardships.

8.     What is one wish you have for the New Year? To write a  perfect sentence, and know it is perfect, and not be tempted to write and rewrite until I end up with something that closely resembles cold mashed potatoes.  

9.     How did you get started reviewing books?   I started reviewing books in 1961-2 when the man assigned to do this task for a denominational organ ran out of time.  He brought me a box of books and said, “The job is yours.”    Reviewing books forces me to remain a disciplined reader, not just someone who flits through a book and says, “I have read this book.”  I read a book for the first time, usually quickly, making notes about key observations and impressions.  Then I go over it again, especially sections I have marked.   Then I start compiling my thoughts.  Then I write, and savor the writing process as I gather thoughts and comments.

10.   Who is one writer who influenced you?  I would have to mention William Barclay, the devotional writer popular decades ago.  I read once that after he had written something he read it to his unschooled servant.  If he couldn’t understand the theological jargon, Barclay went back to his desk to rewrite. That has always been my goal – to write in such a way that I will be understood but also that I will have said something significant in an interesting way.   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Venturing at LifeVentures

One thing about people my age is that we usually like each other.  We like to get together because we understand what that other person is going  through.  We understand  stiffness in the morning,  digestive problems in the late evening,  adjustments to new medications, struggles with old ones,  sleepiness in the early afternoon,  insomnia at night,  inability to run fast  yet the need to hurry, especially to the bathroom.

In 1992 I attended a conference on aging (yes, there were such strange events then)  at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. People talked about what it meant to grow old in this century.  I had been sent there  by a Mennonite church agency  to get some basic understanding of this group of people that I was contracted to write a study guide about.  I was just about into this age category myself.

What I remember most distinctly about that conference is that when presenters talked about the elderly, it was always “they,”   rarely “we” even when it was obvious they had been on Social Security for many years. No one  dared identify with this declining group.  To be old was to be over the hill, finished, on the downward journey.   At the time the word “old” was a four-letter word.

There are many situations in which an older adult is just tolerated, not welcomed.  I have heard of congregations bemoaning the fact that the majority of its membership is old – therefore the church can’t grow-- as if older people are a stagnant body harboring  strange  life forms that prevent forward movement.

Such thinking leads to the kinds of Christmas letters in which parents extoll what their children did during the year – and not how they themselves grew.

When I returned from that conference I started looking for an organization that  viewed this age group not as a finished work but as people with possibilities for intellectual and personal growth, for developing new relationships and learning new skills.  I found it in what is now known as LifeVentures,  formerly Shepherd’s Center.

 It is an inter-faith, non-profit organization.  By inter-faith I mean that no one religion gets top billing.  No one denomination is top dog. It’s a volunteer-based organization with a few great part-time employees to keep the ship afloat.  Check out our website at www.LifeVenturesKS.com

For nearly twenty years I have attended classes sponsored by this group each Tuesday for eight weeks in fall, winter and spring.  I have heard lectures in just about every subject often  taught by retired professionals.  I have gone to classes in history, religion,  health,  travel,  and much more.  There are classes in art, poetry writing and creative writing.  A woman at age 94 teaches piano.  At lunch one day a man age 75 played the accompaniment to “Happy Birthday.” It had been his  lifelong dream.   Before this session he had never played a note.  Ezma taught him. On the program are also  tai chi and yoga. At lunch I keep meeting new people and connecting with old friends.  I love these people.

I have taught poetry writing, journaling,  and especially writing personal or family history.  I’ve pushed the importance of telling our stories, for if we lose them, we lose our connection to ourselves and our families. I've told my own story.  Through the years I’ve  learned many intimate  details about  members’ lives as they read last week’s assignment

When I first started attending  I didn’t know that this association would lead to lasting friendships. What I learned in the classes was the side benefit, not the main one. Older people look for closeness in organizations such as this one but a prerequisite to making friends is the willingness to reach out to new people. 

My age group doesn't want to be abandoned in our declining years. We long for and need friendship. In the movie Cool-hand Luke, the main character,  is in prison at the mercy of abusive guards.  He is sickly, weak, and knows he can’t hang on much longer.  To taunt him the guards place a heaping plate of food in front of him and threaten more punishment if he doesn’t finish it, every last  spoonful.  As his  fellow prisoners walk around the yard each one furtively grabs a spoonful of food from his plate as they pass his corner to share his burden.

I see that as a wonderful portrait of what happens in organizations like LifeVentures--  people sharing the burden of life while enriching their minds and spirits.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A desperate form of birth control

For thirty years I wrote a biweekly column for our denominational organ.  It gave me the opportunity to think in public  about many subjects.  I remember  some columns I was proud of. I’ll also admit to some bloopers. 

A column I wrote in 1980  titled “Convenience...Or Murder?” brought me the most mail I had ever received. It came primarily  from those for whom the issue of abortion was etched in  black and white.  My  editor  later wrote that one letter was signed by 15 women from one congregation stating they did not want readers to operate under the misconception that I was speaking on behalf of all women. I never intended to.  To them this column was worse than a blooper.  

Recently I read Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh, a novel about pioneer  life in Manitoba in which some women, overworked, undernourished, without medical care,  figured out a strange  method of  aborting a fetus. 

The novel was first published in 1925 and condemned as   “obscene” and “indecent.” Grove taught in the Winkler, Manitoba,  school system for several years and married a Mennonite woman. It was later republished in 1989 and heralded as great literature. The novel has a dark outlook on life and is sometimes compared to works by Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser and others. 

In Grove’s novel women suffer because they are expected to work like men yet accept the burden of childbearing to provide  future workers for the farm.  Ellen’s mother had been forced to leave behind two of her three children in her native  Sweden when she and her husband emigrated to Manitoba in the early 1900s.  Her husband demands she help him with the outside work, yet satisfy his needs at night. When she becomes pregnant, he blames her as if she has committed a crime,  for pregnancy keeps her from helping clear the land  and  build his farm. What can she do?

Throughout the ages women have  shared secrets  and folklore  about birth control. It happened when I was a young married woman. It happens today even though  birth control is no longer illegal or  immoral as it was in my mother’s and grandmother’s era.  I sensed as a child  that female relatives were discussing something clandestine related to a topic I did not understand.  

A woman in an earlier time was expected to accept however many children the Lord gave her, for hadn’t the Lord said to  be fruitful and multiply?  And without birth control women sometimes kept bearing children into their middle forties, year after year. My genealogical records show women who bore up to 12 and 14 children, one after another – and then died to be replaced very soon with a new wife – and child-bearer. I wish I could share the stories of some of these women.

In Grove’s novel,  a neighbor gives Ellen’s mother her own foolproof method of not bringing a child to full term:   work harder than a man in the early stages of pregnancy.  The mother does that – lifts heavy things, walks behind the plow for a day, saws huge  logs  with a bucksaw, chops wood  with a heavy  axe, carries bundles, clears brush until she miscarries.  Her husband carries the little  bundle out  to the woods to bury it. And the process starts again.  The mother  tells Ellen she recognizes she is murdering her unborn children, but can see no  way out of her dilemma of working like a man yet bearing children like a woman.  

Even when she is a skeleton of a ghost her husband prays mightily at the bedside before insisting on his rights as a man.  After one difficult  miscarriage  he orders her to whitewash the cabin.  Her strength gives out and  she dies.  

Vilhelm Moberg broaches the same topic  of too many children and not enough strength in his novel  The Settlers, the third book in his series The Emigrants about Swedish pioneers in Minnesota.  Kristina is certain her weakened body cannot  survive another birth,  yet finds herself pregnant for the eighth time.  She had prayed  earnestly, desperately, to be relieved of the sick and miserable feeling for the first few months, the shuffling about on heavy feet to carry the increased burden of her body, and at last the terrifying labor, her strength spent, and then the great weakness and fatigue afterward with her limbs heavy and aching.   Why did God create another life in her?  When her prayer is not answered,  she doubts the existence of God. 

Other immigrant novels examine the same topic of too many pregnancies in weakened bodies, with greater gentleness and delicacy. It appears too often to be ignored as unrealistic.These novels depict the desperation of women forced to bear child after child and what they did to prevent this burden.  Only fiction?  Fiction is often closer to truth than reality. 

As I  re-read my column of 1980,  I wondered again why readers had been upset.  I did not advocate abortion as a method of birth control.   I only asked readers to look at the inconsistencies in our thinking about it.  For example, personhood begins at conception some people proclaim vehemently, yet an early  miscarriage is flushed down the toilet, an unnamed  blob of mucous and blood, sometimes accidentally.  If this were truly a person,  shouldn’t it be shown the respect and dignity of a name and a proper burial? 

In my old age, I am less concerned about certitude about many issues that troubled me earlier.  I hope I am becoming more tolerant of women in this country and underdeveloped countries about their concern about an issue that has been discussed too little.   At what point is enough children enough?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I want my aunt to have a legacy

I come from a one-dimensional family. Let me explain.  My father had a mother,  five brothers and one sister.  No father that I was aware of. Lots of  Funks around.    My mother had no father, no mother,  and only one brother, or so I thought.  Few Janzens.  Having relatives on only one side seemed natural.  

Of course, while we children were growing up there were  passing references to a former home in the Ukraine, to our Janzen grandparents, to Janzen aunts  and uncles and many more,  but those people weren’t as real to me as my Funk relatives  whom we visited regularly.  A child accepts whatever reality she experiences as normal. One grandparent was sufficient – and I never realized until later that most children had four grandparents, all living.

Only as an adult did I learn I had a huge extended family on my mother’s side who had been trapped by the Bolshevist regime in the Ukraine after 1929.  Some had spent what will have seemed like endless lifetimes to them in forced labor in Siberia.  

I met one aunt in Germany and another in Moscow in 1989 and began to aggressively  research my mother’s relatives. Who were these people who had contributed to my gene stock but also my cultural upbringing?

Recently I wrote a 4,500 word article with photos  about Aunt Aganeta Janzen Block, which was published in CMBS Newsletter Fall 2011 She lived an entire lifetime in Russia and the former Soviet Union.  Unfortunately it is not online but available for a suggested  of $5  or more sent to Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies,  Tabor College, Hillsboro KS 67063.   If I live long enough I hope to expand this writing into a book-length manuscript.

After my visit with Aunt Neta Janzen Block she began writing her life story in letters to me, a sister, an aunt and to her nieces. She was a reader and a story teller. During the limited time I spent with her in 1989 she told  me stories about her life while I took notes feverishly. I collected everything I could lay hands on.  In the article I wrote about her life I could only highlight a few major events of her amazing, though difficult, life gleaned from her letters.

She   wrote about her conversion as the result of an experience with the demonic in the life of a young man in her community.

About being married to the son of a kulak (landowner) and  the resulting hardship of being forced out of  their home three times,  carrying only a suitcase in one hand and a child in the other.

About the Great Trek from the Ukraine to Poland of thousands of German-speaking citizens of the Ukraine during World WLar II.   She wrote later that she only understood what was going on in that terrible march  when she read about it decades later in the Rundschau in historical reports.

About the night her husband left home after being conscripted into the German army. He died on the Belgium front. She sent me his last letter to his family – a last will of his hopes for his four children.

About being shipped like cattle to Siberia to work in forced labor in forestry work,  heavy construction , mining and similar industries,  always hungry, always cold. Always mindful of her four young children.

About being interrogated by the secret police, night after night,  who attempted to force  her to  tell lies so they could “legitimately”  punish her.

About seeing her sister Tina after a separation of more than 25 years. This sister and her family had been exiled to another part of Siberia in the 1930s.

In Canada,  Mennonites  are familiar with these accounts.  A large wave of Mennonites who had survived the tumultuous events of the war and its aftermath immigrated  to Canada  from Paraguay and Europe after World War II and brought with them their stories about life during the Bolshevist rule.   Here in the United States we know about the Amish, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Mennonite migrations of 1870s from Russia to the prairies, and such events, but too little about this aspect of our story  and the  difficult sojourn in the cold hell of Siberia.  It needs to be known.

My aunt deserves a legacy.  Through this article I have begun to give her one.  It is the least I can do.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One Hundred Points of Meaning

In the weeks before my daughter Christine died in 2000 it was sometimes hard to hang onto life – not just physical life, but the spark that is life itself.   So, in the evening before we went to bed,  sometimes we tried an exercise in staying alive.  Could we identify what in that  day had been life-giving, what life-denying?  

Sometimes the ledgers were heavily weighted on the life-denying side as we sorted through the day to find a life-saving moment:  A phone call from a friend.  Christine had kept down  one meal.   A bird had tweeted a song just for her  outside her window. The postman had waved.  Small events, no doubt, but life-giving.

Recently I watched a TV show in which a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease was explaining how he stayed “alive” while he was dying.  His suggestion was to make a list of one hundred  things that gave meaning, joy, or pleasure to life.  Then,   though some  will  disappear, slowly or suddenly, one by one,   you will still have 90, then 85, then 80 items that give meaning. 

He recommended  that people should talk about death more.   I admit that people talk about sex today as freely as they do about yesterday’s ice cream sundae with a cherry on top. They know all the ingredients, how long it takes to eat, how it tastes.  But death – that is left to the hospitals, doctors and nurses -- when it  could be an enriching experience for all concerned.

At this stage in life I am very much aware that I am mortal. I am closer to 90 than  I am to 80.  And so I have begun listing my hundred  points of meaning.

1.      I enjoy the feeling when  my tongue slips   over  my teeth after I have brushed them in the morning.  I wait each morning for that clean smoothness, the fresh taste.

2.     I enjoy having a shower, feeling the hundreds of  points of sharp wet heat hit my skin—but not too much, or too long, advises my dermatologist.  My skin is getting too thin, too dry for extended enjoyment under the shower-head.

3.     Speaking of skin, I enjoy remembering the feel of my husband’s skin against mine even after these many years that he is gone.  I’m thinking, in bed, without clothes. 

4. .   I enjoy eating my morning oatmeal, but not the instant kind.  It’s a throwback to my childhood when I rushed home after school to be the first to grab the leftover breakfast porridge, the stuff crusted at the  bottom of the pot, from long cooking.   I eat mine today with skim milk, artificial sweetener – and that’s okay.

5..   Writing in my journal nearly every morning gives meaning to life. I look forward to my time with my journal. Not that I write many wise things, but it is a way of fastening down my life so that I can look at it.

6.     I look forward to my quiet time  with God in the morning. Years ago I didn’t have time for more than a quick prayer before I headed for the door.  Now I can take time to read, to pray, to meditate. My faith sustains me. But I don’t get antsy if I don’t have time.   God understands. 

7.     Holding a newborn baby gives me great pleasure, but it doesn’t happen often. The softness, the smells, the snuffling,  the helplessness, the beauty of innocence—life has  chance to try again. 

8.     Creating with words still excites me.

9.    .  I love a cup of  tea brewed with real tea leaves, not the tea bag stuff made with floor sweepings.  Green tea is good as is Zechung Oolong.  

1        10.     I  like my little lists of things to do, e-mails to write, purchases to make, ideas to think about, and such stuff. I like even more crossing out items when I get them done.  It makes me feel in control. 

11     I like standing at my window watching that last leaf on a branch hang on. Tomorrow I will look again and the next day, again. Until it’s gone. 

12 I like doing the daily crossword puzzle as well as the long Sunday one.  Mission accomplished, I tell myself. My mind is still working-- to a degree.

13.   I like having lunch with my son and observing  how much he resembles his father whom he never knew.  Heredity is powerful. 

14.     I like having lunch with friends who have time to talk ... and talk. None of this eat and run. 

15.     Which reminds me that I love stimulating  conversation above many things. 

16.     I like listening to CDs  with the old music on them. Eine kleine Wassermusik.  Even Elvis Presley singing old Gospel hymns soothes my spirit. 

17.  gives me joy to hear a grandchild phone and say, “Hello, Grandma!” It doesn't happen often enough in this age of Facebook and Twitter. 
18. I enjoy writing my weekly family email. Does anyone read it?  A few say they do.  But I know I am doing my part to keep the glue of family relations from drying out.  Faithfulness is important. 

19.     This next is a non-entry.  I could write it down and then cross it off.  I no longer enjoy shopping. I only do it in stores that have carts I can hang on to.

At this rate, I think I could make it to 100 points of meaning.  I’m well on my way. So how many have to be gone before I can say, “I have finished my course”  and  let go of life?  Twenty? Thirty?   

But maybe as I keep  listing old meaningful items,  I can keep adding new ones as well.

Old and new -- now that gives life meaning.