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.  

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Other Holocaust

A few years ago I told the chairperson of a  women’s club that I would be speaking on “The Other Holocaust”  at their upcoming meeting. Later, she told me she had  hurried to the university library to research the term so that she could make a few meaningful comments before I began speaking. She never found any entries referring to another  holocaust.  I had coined the phrase.

Few people do not know about the Holocaust that annihilated about six million Jews during World War II in the infamous gas chambers of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Too few people know of another Holocaust in which possibly more than sixty million Russian citizens were killed, directly or indirectly, as a result of Communism between 1920 and 1990.  I had always used the figure of thirty million.  Then  researchers kept  adding to that figure.  On March 24, 2001 The Wichita Eagle reported  the number as sixty million.  I call that The Other Holocaust.

Why no general  outcry?  Because the crimes were committed by the Soviet government against its own citizens.  It was an insider job.

My own interest in this holocaust  stems from the fact that among those millions of  citizens who perished because of the war, executions, starvation, imprisonment in gulags,  forced labor,  confinement prisons, were close relatives of my mother.  They had  remained in Russia after the large migration in the 1920s, which brought my parents to Canada.

During the 1930s any religious and intellectual leaders such as ministers,  poets and writers,  kulaks (landowners) and children of kulaks – anyone who threatened  the Bolshevist regime in any way-- was shipped off to the gulags or into forced labor, to prisons, or simply disappeared.

One aunt and her preacher husband and family were exiled to the Perm area in Siberia in the early 1930s where he died shortly thereafter. There were hundreds like them. Writer Solzhnitsyn describes these gulags as “man-made hells.” 

In the 1940s the USSR needed  energy to develop its rich natural resources in Siberia.  Thousands of  German-speaking Russian-born citizens were forcibly  exiled to sites in Kazakhstan  following the division of Berlin by  the Yalta agreement.  They were condemned as traitors to their country.

They were crammed into cattle cars and transported  across the vast Soviet northern expanse to work at hard labor in forestry, construction, mining and industry at near-starvation rations in the bitter cold. Lives were expendable. There were always more available.  The supply was inexhaustible.

Among these expendable  bodies in forced labor camps  in Siberia were my mother’s  six sisters and their families.  Husbands and brothers had been mostly  conscripted into the military or labor army and died  there.   Being a conscientious objector to war was not an option.   Over a period of years one aunt  who survived wrote me the story of her experiences in forced labor after I visited her in Moscow, where she was living with her daughter and family. 

Reading her experiences and as many accounts as I could get my hands on  when I became aware of these relatives in the 1950s  brought me to the conclusion that sixty million was a big enough number of think of this as The Other Holocaust.

The other evening I went to hear Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, a fictional account of his experiences as a reluctant soldier in Vietnam.  It too was a holocaust of massive proportions.  It claimed the lives of more than  58,000  Americans and wounded another 300,000.  Estimates place the number of killed or wounded North and South Vietnamese at roughly four million soldiers and civilians – roughly 10% of the population. I recommend the book highly.

 His point was that instead of being “healed” of  experiences such as the Vietnam war, we should remember them.  Remember the horror.  Remember the uselessness.   Remember the waste of human lives on both sides. 

He writes: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” 

 A holocaust only makes you dead.

And so I continue to write and speak about this other Holocaust that cost countless human lives.  I don’t think the exact number will ever be determined.  Is it sixty of seventy million? I don’t know.  Even one person who dies at the whim of another is too many.  We must never forget.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

To Hoard or Not to Hoard

I don’t watch TV reality hoarding shows. Once was enough.  Looking on as  some  woman agonized whether to toss  a stack of Styrofoam takeout trays saved from McDonald’s  or  to keep  them was not for me.  People like her need more help than a TV show can give. 

Hoarding is not my vice. I learned not to stockpile from my mother.  She had years of experience with bare cupboards during the Russian Revolution of 1917-19, the  ensuing famine,  and then the Depression years in Canada. She learned to live more with less.

 In my little apartment the top and bottom shelves of my kitchen cupboards are nearly empty because I no longer climb on step-stools to look for a long-unused item or fold together like an accordion to retrieve  an out-dated can of beans near the bottom.  Extreme couponing to build stockpiles of food  is not my way of shopping. I see that as another form of hoarding.

But let anyone suggest I throw out files – or even books – and I’m defending my stash  like a she-bear with newborn cubs.   Let anyone recommend thinning files grown fat over the years and I tremble.  Clinging to paper is my besetting sin.  Clutching books to my bosom when someone suggests getting rid of a few brings on heart palpitations.  Books are friends on whose  margins  I have jotted notes and comments to the authors.  To get rid of  books  would be like saying, “Be gone, old friend, I have no  need of you.”  

De-cluttering is a task my age-people are encouraged to do, especially things.   If we don’t do it, someone else will do it when we’re gone.  Yet clutter—any kind-- whether things,  paper, even ideas, beliefs, pet words and phrases, or habits --  can bar  the  soul’s forward movement  even as the body declines with age.  And so I take my yellow pad and make a new list of what needs de-cluttering:

FAT FILE NO. 1 FEARS: Fears easily accumulate from childhood on up and  over-stuff the shelves of the  spirit. New ones are added each decade: fear of making left turns in heavy  traffic,  fear of the new pain in my left hip,  of parallel parking (I never learned that), fear of the  old twinge  in my right hip,  fear of forgetting to take a medication or  to make a payment on time, of  throwing out a document I should have kept.  Fear of the long night, lying awake hour after hour.  That  file has love handles, saddle bags, flaps, and overhangs, and more.   

OBESE FILE NO. 2 UNEXAMINED THEORIES AND BELIEFS:  Over time  certain favorite  beliefs find a stronger and firmer lodging spot in our thinking.  They start in early life with a  comment, sermon,  movie, article, maybe even a conversation,  and get stuck—firmly.  Protective fences and armaments are added with the years to make sure they aren’t dislodged accidentally.   These pet theologies find a comfy hiding place and are never pulled out into the light of day and from  protective safekeeping to be examined in the light of new evidence.  And eventually they take over the inner being and leave no room for new thinking, or better thinking,  about our set-in-cement  interpretations of favorite Bible passages.  And become the main issues in elections.

FAT  FILE NO. 3 GRUDGES:  I have been teaching writing personal or family histories for decades now and find that some of those wonderful people in my age category store grudges about events that  may  have only brushed past them in childhood  and  have now become  monsters still bothering them.  Preachers, teachers, parents, siblings,  business partners and many more--someone gave them a  sharp blow – and keeps giving it in memory, year after year.

OVERWEIGHT FILE NO. 4 PET WORDS AND PHRASES:   I cringe when someone calls me “young lady.”  I shudder when someone  with  an obviously  impoverished word bank who has never met me before calls me “honey” or,  even worse,  “hon.”   I  grow weary when TV interviewers  say, “Tell me a little bit about how  you felt.”  Why not  “a lot”?    Or  when  people on Antiques Roadshow respond to an evaluation of their cherished item with “Wow.”  Some say they weren’t going to say that word, and then do anyway.  And why bother to interview athletes?  I have yet to hear one say something significant.  It’s “like” and “you know.” Well,  you know.

So though I may not be a thing-hoarder,  I keep asking  myself, “What in the filing cabinet of my soul  is whole cloth that holds my inner being together and should be hoarded and what is wrapping paper and ribbon?” 

Jesus talked about not hoarding treasures that  get destroyed by rust or are eaten by moths.    Someone  who followed him  wrote  about another kind of hoarding—filling our minds with what is pure, just,  lovely, gracious, excellent, worthy of praise.  

What would a TV show about this kind of hoarding be like? Or a home?  Boxes full of  praises. Shelves full of love.   Files full of grace and forgiveness.  Cupboards stuffed with justice.  There’d be no room for, like,  my fat files of fears... you know.