Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Midas touch that has nothing to do with money

Last night I finished reading Yann Martel's book of short fiction titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Having read his novel The Life of Pi I was ready to see what other kind of writing he did.

Each piece in this unusual collection shows the strong social conscience of an exceptional writer. The first story features a young man dying of AIDS and his close relationship with his friend. He became infected through a blood transfusion.

In the second a young Canadian university student visits Washington, D.C. and experiences the Vietnam War through an intense concert performed by a group of veterans in a theater being demolished. In the third Martell describes variations of a warden's letter of comfort to the mother of a man he has just executed. The execution is, of course, "always painless."

I identified most with the last story about a young man visiting his elderly grandmother. He is bored beyond words by her nattering about her life ... blah, blah, blah, blah .... and the objects that surround her in her home..blah, blah, blah. At the end the young man is forced to acknowledge that "My grandmother has a sort of Midas touch; every object she touches becomes eternal.... Every object in her house was infused with an indwelling psyche that spoke to her of somebody or something of her long life." It is another way of saying that if you want someone or something to stay alive, you have to keep remembering.

My little apartment is alive through the objects that surround me. On the TV stands a mantel clock with the words "Time by Tim." A student named Tim made it for me when he graduated from college. He fell in love with Shakespeare during his studies and named his first son William in recognition of the great playwright.I look at the carefully-made clock and think of Tim -- and Richard II, or was it the III?

Above the TV hangs a zinc etching of the Funk windmill that stood high on a windy hill on the outskirts of Rosenthal, in the Ukraine. My grandfather owned and operated it for several decades in the early 1900s. Daughter Joanna drew the picture. Brother-in-law Henry had it etched and mounted. I tell myself that picture represents my past, a good past, a complicated past, with war, revolution, famine, pestilence, and migration, and new beginnings woven into it.

The marble bookends on the antique stand were given to my husband at the time of his ordination in 1954 by his sister and husband, John and Susie. A whole lifetime of experiences with these friends/relatives rises to the surface when I look at the bookends. Like the grandson in Martel's story they speak to me of an event and keep friends alive.

My mother's workbasket stands in a corner. She used to keep her knitting in it. I recall sitting next to her as she sat in her easy chair, her German newspapers around her. "These are my friends," she said. She loved to read. On Sunday mornings she carried the workbasket into the bedroom. Knitting as work; on Sundays she rested.

Across from my recliner is Christine's nun's chair. When she worked as a parish nurse at a Catholic church in Chicago, she scrounged for furniture in the rectory attic for her apartment. She brought back this discarded nun's chair to Wichita when she moved here. Christine died in 2000 but her memory is very much with me, and also the image of a nun, in habit, calmly rocking in that chair with simple lines, across from me.

Son James made the coffee table in a high school woodworking class. Daughter Susan stitched the quilted wall hanging above the kitchen table. My apartment comes alive when I look around. It doesn't have things standing around, but people.

I live alone and yet I don't live alone. I live with artifacts that speak to me of events and relationships in my long life. To give these up is like giving up living people, and the reason why the elderly resist moving to one room in nursing homes. The things that gave meaning to their lives have to be left behind and that hurts. It changes milk with heavy cream into skim, watered down.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Life without mirrors

In the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the older woman in the nursing home tells the younger woman visiting her regularly the story of the Whistlestop Cafe and the women who managed it. She states, "People stay alive if you remember them." She is keeping those two women alive by telling their story.

I want to keep my aunt Aganeta Janzen Block alive by telling her story. I met her in 1989 in Moscow when she was living a daughter and husband in a high rise apartment building.

Aunt Neta had an amazing spirit despite decade after decade of unspeakable hardships, including eleven years in forced labor in Siberia during the 1940s. At the time she had four young children, the youngest about two and the oldest a growing boy of 16. Her husband, conscripted into the German army, died at the Belgium front during World War II.

Aunt Neta was a woman of indomitable faith in a loving God despite years of living with extreme cold, hunger, and brutal treatment at the hands of overseers. She wrote me about her life in about sixty to seventy letters, which I have been translating. It became clear to me wherever life gave her a resting place, even for a few minutes, and she had an audience, she would tell a story. Here is one:

At the death of her grandfather in 1915, she, then a young girl of nine, and her parents traveled 60 kilometers from Trubetskoy, where her father was working, to the funeral. My mother Anna and sister Tina and the houseparents at Bethania Mental Hospital, who were all employed there, came for the funeral also.

She writes that her two oldest sisters, whom she barely knew, having been away from home a long time, were attractive young women at the time. She especially remembered my mother, who was wearing a beautiful sky-blue shawl with a long fringe. She heard people say, "What lovely girls the Janzens have."

That wonderful memory of my mother remained with her. She said as she was writing about that image, it was like it had happened yesterday.

At the age of 15 [girls from poor homes left home early to help earn money], she left home to work for her Uncle Hans Janzen, whose wife was sick. They had four young children. She had to look after the whole household, which her uncle valued. One day he brought her a large white shawl -- not sky-blue.

Years later, in 1932, she and her husband, son of a kulak (landowner) were struggling to stay alive in Siberia, working in the forest. During the period of collectivization, landowners were displaced and their land seized by the regime. The forest work was hard. Her children small. The mosquitoes merciless.

One Sunday, early, they had gone to the nearest town to try to buy supplies. In a ,waiting for her husband, she carefully examined her surroundings and the people. All at once she saw a woman who looked exactly like her sister Anna, only her shawl was white. She couldn't quit looking, she was so drawn to this woman.

When her husband showed up, she said, "Come, I'll show you someone who looks just like my sister Anna."

"Yes," he replied, "and that woman is my Neta."

How could she have been so mistaken, she asked herself. The walls were mirrors and mirrors were no longer a part of her life. Later, they often laughed at her mistake.

I have since wondered after reading her story, what life would be like if one morning every mirror in the U.S. shattered and we had to live without them. What difference would it make? How much time would we have for other things?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Stuff and more stuff about stuffy stuff

A friend said she was sorting photographs. She was moving into an apartment. "You only have so much room in an apartment," she said sadly. She couldn't take it all with her.

Another friend mentioned he was sorting tapes. He used to be a minister and the audiotapes of his sermons had piled up. Now what? Who wants audiotapes in an age of CDs? He was in a quandary.

Years ago I found this anonymous essay about stuff, which I haul out from time to time as a reminder that a moving van won't accompny me at the cemetery.

Every fall I start stirring in my stuff. There is closet stuff, and drawer stuff, attic stuff, and basement stuff. I separate the good stuff from the bad stuff, then I stuff the bad stuff anywhere the good stuff is not be too crowded until I decide if I will need the bad stuff.

When the Lord calls me home, my children will want the good stuff (I hope), but the bad stuff, stuffed wherever there was room among the other stuff, will be stuffed into bags and taken to the dump where all the other people's bad stuff ends up.

When I visit my daughter, she always moves her stuff so I will have room for my stuff. With their stuff and my stuff....well, it would be much easier to use their stuff and leave my stuff at home with the rest of my stuff.

This fall I had an extra closet built so I would have a place for all the stuff too good to throw away and too bad to keep with my good stuff. You may not have this problem, but I seem to spend a lot of time with stuff -- foodstuff, cleaning stuff, medicine stuff, clothes stuff, and outside stuff. What would life be like without all this stuff?

Now there is all that stuff we use to make us smell better than we actually do. There is stuff to make our hair look good. Stuff to make us look younger. Stuff to make us look healthier. Stuff to hold us in and stuff to fill us out. Stuff to play with, stuff to entertain us, stuff to read, and stuff to eat. We stuff ourselves with food stuff until we're too stuffed to stuff in any more. We end up looking stuffed.

Well, our lives are filled with stuff -- good stuff, bad stuff, little stuff, big stuff, useful stuff, junky stuff, and other people's stuff. Now, when we leave our stuff and go to heaven, whatever happens to our stuff won't matter. We will still have the good stuff God has prepared for us in heaven. -- Author unknown

Monday, August 1, 2011

A house as a place, not just space

Recently I placed all the photos I could find of houses where I have lived in an album in chronological order. There aren't as many as I expected. I got the idea from Leland Harder of North Newton who wrote his memoirs, a chapter on each house he had lived in from childhood on up. He went to great effort to get pictures of each house and to recall what went on in that particular house.

I looked at each of my pictures carefully. The first picture is the house where I was born in Laird, Saskatchewan, in 1924 -- nothing but a low, ugly, wooden shack. Two rooms. A kitchen and eating area. A bedroom and living area. Both miniscule. Both crowded. Washtubs, boiler, wood, shovel, outhouse are all outside. When space is limited in a house, people claim the great outdoors.

In the doorway stands my handsome father in shirt and tie and Mother with me wearing a frilly bonnet in her arms and little Annie and Frieda beside her. The family was probably ready to walk to church when Dad's brother John came out of the shack next door with a camera and snapped the picture. They were all newcomers to the land -- recent immigrants from the Ukraine.

For some people, a house represents their station in life -- rich or poor, high class or low class. Yet as I look at each picture, the house in it represents much more than the space where I lived at the time.

I like the way theologian Walter Brueggeman differentiates between space and place. I now live in an apartment of about a thousand square feet. Some people would say I don't have much space, and sometimes I think so myself, when books and files get piled on the bed and dining room table. A friend recently thought I had a very spacious apartment.

I recall visiting an aunt in northern Germany in the late 1980s. She had recently come from Russia with her daughter's family consisting of husband and six children as Umsiedlers. They (nine people) lived in a cramped apartment in Espelkamp. I had written her to reserve a hotel room for me. I didn't want to intrude on their already crowded space. She resisted my request. Reserve a room for me in a hotel, away from them? Unheard of. "During the war," she said, "we could have housed thirty people in this space." Space is relative.

Place is something else.

"Place is space that has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations," writes Brueggeman.

He sees a place as space in "which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation, and envisioned destiny."

I look at that first picture in my album and I wonder what words were spoken between Mother and Dad, strangers in the land of Canada, in those close quarters. At what point did they decide that this land would be their land, and that they would merge their identity with it? Can a person have more than one homeland at a time? Or does new space result in a time of uncertainty?

As I examine each of the other pictures I think of the words that were spoken in them -- or that should have been spoken. In which house was my identity established? In which did I begin to dream about the future for myself -- especially as a writer?

I remember lying on the woodpile in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, basking in the warm sun and dreaming of life beyond this little hamlet north of the Saskatchewan River. I never realized that though the one-and-a half story frame house painted cream with green trim may have been the space I was occupying at the time, it was also the place where my destiny was being shaped by the stories I was being told about life not so long ago in Russia, about life as my father experienced it now in his store on Main Street, about the words I was speaking to myself, silently, cautiously, about becoming a word-maker.

Place, not just space. We turn space into place with words.