Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Hopping down the Zwieback trail -- only in Menno-land

Children learn the alphabet by various ways.  I recall a song I learned ending “Now I know my ABCs, tell me what you think of me.”  When I suddenly have to remember what letter comes after the one I am focused on, I still sing this song to myself. 

Other children learn their ABCs by stating “A is for apple, rosy and red, B is for ball .....” and so on. 

Now children and adults – all of us – have another device to learn the alphabet – the Anabaptist alphabet creatively portrayed in the book On the Zwieback Trail: A Russian Mennonite Alphabet of Stories, Recipes and Historical Events by Lisa Weaver with illustrations and designs by Julie Kauffman and Judith Rempel Smucker.

It is published by Canadian Mennonite University Press in Winnipeg. A truly classy production.  Bold, bright, beautiful. 

Do Methodists have such a treasure? Baptists? Catholics?  I doubt it. 

Only in the Mennonite world. 

This is not a primer in the usual sense, but a wonderfully cheerful illustrated introduction to the Russian Mennonites, beginning with the Anabaptists in Europe in the 1500s. These early radical Christ-believers practiced adult baptism, communion, and shared time, talents and goods.  On the Zwieback Trail, however, is not a “quiet-in-the-land” approach to Mennonite life and thought but a bold, upbeat look.  

So A is for Anabaptism, of course. What else? 

It continues with this novel approach to introducing new readers to the Russian Mennonites  with B is for Borscht.  Anyone familiar with this  Russian Mennonite cabbage  soup can add their own descriptors.  The recipe is illustrated with a photo appetizing enough to make the reader want to dip into the page  and taste it. And for those unfamiliar with it, to make a pot for dinner. 

And so, on through the alphabet:  D is for the Dnieper River basin of the Ukraine, where in the late 1700s Empress Catharine the Great invited Prussian Germans to settle on its fertile steppes.  

F is for Faspa, that  delightful Mennonite  “high tea,” only with Mennonites, it is coffee,  served in the early afternoon, usually consisting of Zwieback, coffee and lots of conversation.  It was looked forward to because it was a time to “neighbor,”  or visit, so important to these Russian Mennonites and their ancestors. 

On the inside front cover is a map of the village of Rosenthal, near the Dnieper River. A small windmill  in the top left-hand corner is identified with the words “Johann Funk Windmill.” That marks the spot where my grandparents and, later on,  my parents lived until 1923.  That year, along with thousands of other immigrants, they headed for Canada, away from the heartache of World War I, the horrors of the Russian Revolution, the desperation of the Hunger Years, and the pestilence that killed my great-grandparents, my grandfather and an uncle in two short weeks. 

On a trip to Russia in 1989 I stood on that spot and tried to imagine what it might have been like working inside that Dutch-style windmill, high on this windy hill—long since gone and replaced with wheat fields.  

The second colony settled by Mennonites in the Ukraine is shown with a map on the back inside cover, pinpointing the dozens of villages established along the Molotschnaer River. 

As I wrote in a blurb on the back cover, “Anyone with Verenike strengthening their muscles and Borscht flowing in their veins knows that Z could only stand for Zwieback.   Join a voyage of discovery down the alphabet trail to celebrate the history, culture and service of this branch of Anabaptist believers. From the early 1500s to the present, it’s all there for young and old to enjoy.” 

Each letter of the alphabet refers to some significant aspect of Russian Mennonite history , faith and culture.
M is for  Menno Simons, 16th century Anabaptist leader after whom the Mennonites were named.  He taught that “True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace, and they walk in the way of peace.” 

It is a book that brings back memories, introduces new learning to the uninitiated, and tempts  readers to try new traditions and new foods. It is a treasure trove of unexpected pleasures.

I showed it to my son James Wiebe of Belite Airplanes when he came for lunch one day.  He, too, marveled at the professional look of this book.  But he stopped at the page showing a picture of a glider built by three young students about 1901 near Chortitza.  He was amazed.  Aeronautics interested his Russian-born ancestors as it does him, so much so that it led to a career change? He decided to trace that lead to find out some more. 

Other treasures include recipes for peppernuts, pluma mos,  Russian-style pancakes, verenike, and the almost sacred Zwieback, the two-decker bun,  a tradition among Mennonite housewives, made by the huge dishpan-pan full each Saturday.  
So all together: A is for Anabaptism!

To order your copy, go on-line for information about this bold new way of  writing Mennonite history.  You won’t regret it.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

I am running out of minutes

Our phones notify us when we are running out of days, even minutes.   Life doesn’t do us the same favor. 

I am running out of life minutes.  I know for a fact that at my age I have fewer minutes to live than I have already lived. Yet this is not a morbid thought, just a reminder to see what baggage I am lugging behind me.   If I had all my minutes to live over, what changes would I make?  What luggage would I leave behind?  What luggage can I leave behind? 

I would eat fewer beans and more ice cream.  That’s not original with me.  Let me say it in my words:  I’d aim for more joy, less drudgery. Joy is peace dancing. Anything done grudgingly means I’m dragging a skid of bricks over a gravel road. 

I would ask my parents more questions about what life was like when they were young, the challenges they faced, how they made decisions. But then I didn’t know what questions to ask.  Now I do. 

I was wondering the other day what my father’s feelings might have been when he stood on the streets of Moscow as a young man in the Russian military as a medic, away from his Mennonite community for the first time. The year  was 1914.  Did he feel the same way I felt when I moved into what seemed like a foreign country when I married?  Does the quality of homesickness ever change? What would he have done differently.

I would live with greater passion.   Passion was a bad word when I was growing up because it hinted at steamy liaisons in the dead of the night in some dark secret corner indulging in forbidden pleasures. 

In Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, the psychiatrist is trying to learn why his young disturbed patient blinded the eyes of several valuable horses with a metal spike. He learns that, before the blinding incident, the boy occasionally took the horses at night and raced them on the shore, bareback and naked, at top speed.  The boy tells Dysart, “At least I galloped. When did you?”  The psychiatrist is forced to acknowledge that the boy did something he had never allowed himself to do—to gallop, to know passion.  And he envies him.  

In  my book Border Crossing I confessed I had  been too concerned about what people would think if I waved a banner boldly, or spoke out frankly on issues I was concerned about. I saw a lion behind every blade of grass, and not a Wizard of  Oz Cowardly Lion either. So if I could do it all over,  I would be less timid about speaking up about injustice,  prejudice, violence, the chains of rigidity,  the inadequacy of either/or answers. I would have written more frankly, more forcefully, more fiercely. I hope. . . .

With foreknowledge about writing  opportunities,  I would aim harder at freeing people from oppressive theologies. In other words, I would like to have been a “catcher in the rye,” standing at the edge of the cliff, like the fictional Holden Caulfield, freeing people from oppressive views of God.  

Simply said, I would have studied more thoroughly how God  relates to people and people to God. Some preachers, teachers, and their kin spend a lifetime enmeshing their congregations in thinking that chains their spirit.   I would tell preachers their task is to free people from narrow, small thinking about God and how he works in the world. 

Before they went into Babylonian exile the early Israelites viewed  God as  a local and denominational God, limited  to their kind.  In Babylonian captivity  they learned that God was not limited to the temple or to them, but that God planned to extend his love also to the Gentiles. 

I grew up with much the same concept – God was restricted to my family, my church, my kind, only to learn as I dared step further and further  outside these boundaries that God was bigger, greater, and not someone I could limit or tame by my understanding. For too much of my life my understanding  of God was much too restricted. I made him my size, a size I could handle with comfort.

I would have demanded less certainty about faith matters,  for if we want faith in God reduced to something we can measure, caress, weigh, describe in concrete terms, we are the losers.   The apostle Paul speaks about these matters as a “mystery” with great depths of wisdom and knowledge.  When this mystery has been flattened, the transcendence of God dissipates and the awe, wonder, and transcendence is turned into lifeless words.  If I had all my minutes to live over, I would tell people, “Your God is too dinky.”

I would be kinder to myself and less judgmental of others for being less than perfect.  It sometimes takes a lifetime to realize that everyone has his or her own burden to bear.  Forgiveness of self and of others is the bread of daily life, not the dry crust offered to the dog. 

And yet, here I am, at age 87, nearly 88,  having to say that my life was what it was.  In Theodore Roethke’s words, “I learn by going where I have to go.”  I learned by going where I had to go.  I can’t change the past, but I can whatever minutes I have left.

 And so I go into my remaining minutes, hopefully still learning. . . and learning. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Extreme obesity or extreme emaciation lead to a dead ending

Last week the daily newspaper carried an account of a morbidly obese woman who fell off her couch.  Family members were unable to lift her up so she spent the next days – maybe even weeks – on the floor.  No one called EMS for help and instead her family fed her lying on the floor. She was eventually hospitalized and died “due to bed sores and infection,” the police report stated. No arrests were made. 

The same morning I continued translating letters received from relatives  in the former Soviet Union and later in Germany from 1923 to the 1990s. It’s been a long, difficult yet rewarding task as I learn more about the maternal side of our family. 

 My parents migrated to Canada in 1923.  Ten of my mother’s siblings and her parents stayed behind in the Ukraine to suffer horrendous suffering,  including Stalin’s  politically-induced famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, collectivization, and the Great Terror  when the Black Raven, a big black secret police vehicle,  stopped at a  home in the middle of the night, rapped loudly and demanded the father to come with them, usually to be executed or sent into Siberian exile.

Next came  World War II, the Great Trek to Poland, and then thousands of German-speaking citizens from the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union were captured and shipped to Siberia in cattle cars, many succumbing on the way. “Forever,” they were told. They were forced to work in the taiga in forced labor camps on below-subsistence rations.  Women with young children were especially expendable and not expected to survive long under the harsh conditions. Aunt Maria had three young children. She did not know where her husband was. 

My aunt  alludes briefly in one letter  years later to the time in the Novisibirsk area of Kazakhstan.   Now resettled  in Germany, she was having difficulty with her feet and legs: They were overworked, over-taxed. I walk quite well, but then all at once I lose all strength, especially in  my left leg.  I think the problem started n Novisibirsk when I had to walk seven miles to my workplace, work ten hours  plastering the inside and outside of the building which we were working on, without machines like it is done now, but with our hands. We also had to make the plaster and carry it in, and then, in the evening, walk back to our barracks – desperately hungry. I was very thin – had no breasts – my ribs stuck out like a washboard.  But I had to work to survive. The poor children no longer played, only sat on the beds and waited – Mama might bring some bread – and maybe cook some soup [usually only potatoes and onionsno meat].
Yes, those were some times. I don’t like to speak about them.  It is as if I am lying.  I can hardly believe it myself that we lived through those times -- it was very, very hard.  Yes, our great God helped me and my children through that time. God be praised.  And how wonderful it is that neither I nor my children ever went to a hospital, and all stayed alive, including my husband Peter.  I never believed that I would live to get this old – 82 years.  

The first woman became obese because she had access to too much food, the other emaciated because she was denied access to food. In reading the book Bloodlands by  Timothy Snyder,  I became aware once again that starvation was used as a weapon of warfare repeatedly in Europe during World War II by both Hitler’s military forces as well as by Stalin’s.  But that is a subject for another blog. 

Our country is suffering from an epidemic of obesity and no one is forcing them to overeat.  It is making fortunes for many fast-food chains. Obesity is linked to cardiac problems, diabetes, and now recently, to autism in babies born to over-weight  mothers. What we can control in this country is our intake of food.  

I recall my mother, who had lived through the famine of 1920-21 in the Ukraine, each morning  as we sat around our oilcloth-covered table, thanking God for food for this day.  She had known hunger.  Now in the free world she was thankful to be  able to put food on the table for her family. I treasure that memory. 

Today we seem to have lost a sense of the sacredness of “daily bread,” no longer recognizing that it is a gift, not to be taken lightly. Many people  no longer pray for it or thank God for it. 

Instead it becomes a gadget to have fun with. I read of watermelon “feeds,” contests to see who can eat the most of one food, like wieners, hamburgers, pie and so forth, only to regurgitate it a few minutes after the contest is over. Such a contest shows a disregard for the sacredness of food.   I hesitate going to all-you-can eat restaurants because the massive amounts of food some overweight diners gorge on, often wasting a good portion.  It becomes revolting. 

I saw a beer ad on television which stated, “Please drink responsibly.”  Has the time come when food, especially those loaded with empty  calories,  should carry  the warning, “Eat responsibly.  This food may be hazardous to your health”? 

And to your soul? 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bald heads, purple or gray hair -- no problem

To my horror, as I  moved into my fifties and sixties my hair started turning  gray.  I was going the way of all flesh.  I was not immune to the ravishes of time.  Gray hair, salt-and-pepper variety. Gray hair, any variety, looked well on friends but resembled the dispirited froth of a weary ocean wave on me. I was devastated.  

Dyeing (the term used then)  was a solution but also a burden.   My hair turned a strange shade of orangeish-yellow even though the package clearly said ash-blonde.  And then there was the problem of white roots showing up at inappropriate times when I didn't have time to do anything about it.

Why did I need to look younger than I was?  What was wrong with looking older than I looked ten years ago if I’d lived ten years longer?   Why not delight in looking my age? 

In one of my prayer-poems in Prayers of an Omega, I asked “Should I let the hairdresser give me purple hair like Loretta’s?”  Older women at the time used a kind of purple-blue tint. It looked strange, but it was the style, and style was always king--or rather, queen.

I recall hearing a story about a woman who had a heart attack in her sixties and arrived at the Pearly Gates, quite distraught.  She begged St. Peter to give her another five or ten years.  Sixty was too young to die.  He agreed and sent her back to earth with the promise of another ten years.

Ten years? Wonderful. She had a new lease on life. She dived into life with gusto.  The first step was to have a face lift,  breast augmentation, tummy tuck, and, of course, having her hair colored.  She came out of the salon feeling and looking beautiful.  On  the way home she had a car accident and was killed, arriving back at the Pearly Gates.

"You promised me another five or ten years," she remonstrated loudly.

The Keeper of the Gates looked at her carefully, before responding.  "I'm sorry, I never recognized you." 

When I arrive at the Pearly Gates, will God  recognize me?

I assured myself  that God looks on the inside, not the outside. God can count hairs on bald heads,  blonde heads, brown heads, and purple heads. Children of God are always beautiful.  Peace-loving people are always beautiful. The face of wisdom is always beautiful.  Mature, serene people are always beautiful.   

The young bride  is radiantly beautiful, yet her mother shows greater charm and grace despite her gray hair. And the wrinkled grandmother?  Her face reflects the wisdom of years of experience.  That is true beauty. 

I went white and got more compliments that I ever had when I was blonde.  So white I am until I land at the pearly gates.