Monday, September 24, 2012

Birthday thoughts at age 88

Last week was my 88th birthday—yes, 88.  I find it hard to believe myself.  I am a September child.  What does the old rhyme say? “September’s child has far to go” or is that Thursday’s child has far to go?

I have wondered why people my age like to celebrate birthdays. Maybe because the alternative is so obvious.  

Yet, this birthday, once again, I have thought about childhood birthdays, and my anguish at never having a birthday party.  During the Depression September was no time for birthday parties. 
My birth took place in a little shack next to the railway line – two rooms and a path—and I was the third child, too soon after the other two, and too soon after having suffered through the famine in the Ukraine before I was conceived in 1921-22.
Mother had a difficult birth and got up too soon to can plums, yes, prune plums, for winter was coming. 

She began hemorrhaging so her sister-in-law called the midwife who was more disturbed that she might lose her reputation if her patient died than that a young woman in the prime of life might lose her life and three young daughters lose their mother and their father his wife.

What  she was trying to do that day  was something she and Dad worked hard at every fall for decades in this new country – get ready for winter.  This would be their second winter in this new land  where they were unfamiliar with the climate, language and customs.

Every year there was canning, bringing in the garden,  getting children ready for school,   buying winter clothing, banking the house with dirt, making sure the woodpile outside and the coal pile inside were big enough to last until spring and ... the list was endless.  A party with a cake for a September child was out of the question.  

Someone told me that on our birth date instead of receiving gifts we should give gifts to the one who gave birth to us. Although Mother is no longer with us today, once again,  I give her thanks for her many gifts to me: 

Her love of reading and expanding her knowledge of the world.  For someone who had a meager education in the Ukraine and learned English as a second language, she enjoyed reading newspapers, religious literature, and novels.  I can remember her saying  in her 90s: “These are my friends,” pointing to the newspapers and books lying around her recliner. 

Her skills in homemaking.  She ran a well-organized home. Every task had a purpose. Every meal had a specified time.   Every meal had an organized plan.  Very little food was thrown together haphazardly. Meals were her gifts of love to us – her family. She loved to cook and bake.  

Her assertiveness.  For a Mennonite woman she was remarkable for  her forthrightness about ideas and actions.  I recall a time when in order to hold the family together she ran a boarding house temporarily  She fed the boarders too well to make much money, and  when she didn’t think they did their laundry  to suit her standards, she even did that service for them.  But the family survived until Dad had re-established himself by owning and operating a store.

Her love of family.  Family came before all else in her thinking.  This included her loyalty to my father to his dying day, even when he had lost his zest for life.  He loved her, not with the  words and flowers popular today,  but the unspoken attitude  of his life.  
Her interest in theological questions and faith in God.  In recent years I have wondered where I got my unending interest in theological issues.  From her and from my father. Both of them switched loyalties in the Ukraine from the Kirkliche Mennonite Church to the Mennonite Brethren and the Allianz, and then while living in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, learned  to live with Russian Baptists, United Church of Canada people, as well as Doukhobors, Catholics and others.  I can not remember Mother or Father ever making disparaging remarks about these people of different faiths among whom they lived closely.

Her love of good conversation.  We could spend a whole afternoon talking together.  I can still hear her saying, “Weisst du, Katie .....” 

My gift list is much longer, but I stop here.   We are all standing on the shoulders of those who went before us.  Thanks, Mother and Dad. I wish I had said thanks more often when you were alive.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hunger Angel and forced labor camps

No, this is not about the popular novel The Hunger Games, but about The Hunger Angel, a novel by  Romanian writer Herta Mueller (winner of the Nobel Prize) and translated by Philip Boehm.

It follows the life of Leo Auberg,  who at 17 was deported to a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union following World War II. For the next five years he works his daily shift loading bricks, shoveling coal, making cement blocks, hauling slog from a coke furnace – all on an empty stomach. 

 The hunger angel is his constant companion, reenforcing the only mathematical equation important to camp  inmates: one  shovel load = one gram of bread. Every inmate has a hunger angel and all the hunger angels know one another. 

I was drawn to this book because seven of my mother’s sisters and several brothers as well as other relatives spent a decade or more in forced labor in the Soviet Union following World War II.  The war was over, but the Stalinist regime was not finished with former citizens who happened to have German origins.  It shipped them by the thousands into the Siberian taiga to develop its resources.  

Mueller bases her novel on interviews with poet Oskar Pastior, who died before she could finish a book about him.  This novel came out of her many notes.  It reminded me of Alexander Soltzhenitzyn’s novel  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch which  follows Ivan, a simple peasant,  through one “good” day in a forced labor camp. It ends when he finds an eye of a fish in his thin soup that evening – a protein bonus. 

The hunger angel  in Mueller’s novel is not your usual extraterrestrial being in flimsy white robe and feathery wings, playing a harp,  but chronic hunger that makes you sick with all kinds of illness. This hunger angel is always new, always growing, never tired. 

The hunger angel leads you to the garbage dump to hunt for frozen potato peels. At the end of day it  crawls into your bunk with you even as  you climb into your hunger.
Hunger speaks through your mouth when you are a slave laborer.  It makes the sexes indistinguishable after a while.  

Recipes are the jokes of the hunger angel.  Lice and bedbugs are constant companions. In such a place where hunger permeates everything,  dreams, imagination and reality are of one piece. 

Hunger owns you, always whispering, “How much longer will  you survive?” The hunger angel sees you dead. Camp ethics make stealing another person’s bread  a crime of the highest kind.

But Leo never totally despairs. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan who  takes pride in his work, menial as it may be, he takes pride in his work, even shoveling coal. “Every shift is a work of art.” 

This  importance of hanging onto one’s  self-respect is a theme in other literature with similar settings. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp because he was Jewish writes in Man’s Search for Meaning that those who did not think life expected anything of them in these grim circumstances were the first to die. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale  is  a futuristic novel about a time when any woman with a viable womb is  forcibly enlisted to bear children  in the land of Gilead, a parody of Old Testament culture, and systematically bred. The main character, while waiting for the monthly insemination in her cell, is buoyed up by the tiny Latin words scratched  on her closet wall, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”  You can survive this. 

In Mueller's novel the  other main characters emerge through Leo's eyes:  Tur, the capo, or gang boss, who holds all power of life and death,  in his hands;  Fenya, the woman who weighs the daily bread allotment of 800 grams, depending on the type of work, and others. 

What keeps the young man  alive are his grandmother’s words “You will return.”  At  the end of his sentence, Leo returns home to his parents and discovers, to his dismay, he has lost much, including his ability to connect to people, his table manners--he doesn’t know how to use a knife and fork.  He misses his former companions in the camp, the “heart-shovel”  he used to shovel coal.  

Several decades later he admits that  recovering the stolen years is almost impossible.  Coming back from such an experience is “a stroke of crippled luck” for which he is thankful.   He was there -- but  he is stuck there.  The camp mindset  won’t leave him. It has  left an indelible mark on him. 

The capo and the hunger angel handed him a dowry upon his release:  binding habits  including  “My steep-sided hollowness, I’m all spooned out, hard-pressed on the outside and empty on the inside ever since I no longer have to go hungry.”

This is a book to savor word by word for its rich poetic intensity and significant insights into what hardships  imposed by a fellow human being do to a soul. 

I am working on a biography of one of aunt who spent eleven years in forced labor in Kirov near the Siberian border.  She was well acquainted with the hunger angel. Mennonite World Review is presently serializing a short version of her story which she sent to me in letters over several years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Faith with words, words without faith

The news article stated that presidential candidate Mitt Romney has trouble speaking about his faith.  Is that because he is a Mormon and some people think Mormonism is a cult or is it because he doesn’t like talking about what happens  inside himself?  

Many people have trouble speaking about their faith. Faith is intensely personal to them, like bathroom problems,  not something openly discussed.  It’s okay to talk about sex to the smallest grasp or gasp.  That intensely personal experience  is displayed  openly on movie and TV screens.  

But faith – keep that to yourself.  Instead people ask “How’s your sex life?”  To ask about their faith would be a faux pas of the highest order. Sex is public, faith is private, if there at all.

I grew up in a religious culture leaning toward fundamentalism where it was important to have a religious language you could use with ease, especially with people of the same orientation.  They expected it, and if you didn’t use such language you were suspect.  Not quite in the fold.

So some people were always sprinkling God-words over everything: “God told me to do this,”  “The Lord was speaking to me ....” “How are things between you and the Lord?” was not an uncommon question. “Do you have a testimony for the Lord this day?”  was another.   You were expected to exchange God-words. 

Testimony meetings were common, so if you didn’t want to be considered a backslider you had a “testimony” ready to produce on the spur of the moment. I think of the great revivalist and church builder John Wesley who  admonished his listeners he didn’t want any testimony that was older than a week. In other words,  living the faith life meant having new experiences  all the time. It meant having an ongoing connection with God. He didn't want worn-out faith words.

An older preacher-friend called  unthought-through  God-words  a “manufactured” faith – faith that consisted of words pasted together in the right combination to make people believe you had faith.   They were memorized faith-words but without faith. The once popular writer A.W. Tozer called it “conventional religious chatter.”

In semantic classes I tried to teach college students that the word is not the thing. The word “chair”  is  but a symbolic representation of that item of furniture we sit on.   To be able to speak  the  sounds for the article  “chair” does not mean the sounds are the chair.  Because of language we can speak of concrete items through symbols.  We need symbols to be able to communicate.

To have the words for  a recipe for chicken soup does  not mean being able to put the soup on the table for lunch.  In  Herta Mueller’s The Hunger Angel the  starving inmates in forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union list and describe all the ingredients of  former much-enjoyed meals to one another, slowly, in great detail. But  these words carefully chosen have  no calories in them. They are words only.  The symbol is not the thing.

Similarly, to be able to say the words of faith does not mean having faith.  Some people  have faith but lack words.  I don't know about Romney's problem. I'll leave that up to him.

As I add years to my life I ask myself  if  I have more words about faith?  Or more faith without words to describe it?  Do I have better words?    

Words are important to faith. But empty words are meaningless.  True words are powerful.  I pray that my faith language might always  be true words.  Fewer. Clearer.