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?