Thursday, December 23, 2010

Follow the Shepherd Home

I am happiest in places where I can walk to everything I need. I drive maybe 10 miles/week, if I have to. This luxury, however, feeds my fear of driving. After mulling it over for years, I finally purchased a GPS system, complete with a calm female voice telling me which lane to get into and redirecting me when I take a wrong turn.

The GPS came into my life much to the chagrin of my do-it-yourself, I-could-have-been-an-artsy-pioneer husband, who--on a disastrous road trip to see a recent Over the Rhine concert--vented that he now had TWO women telling him what to do when he drove!).

Needless to say, we have earmarked a new rule of marriage: I use the Tom-Tom when I drive to new places, and he does not. And having the GPS means that I will volunteer to drive more frequently (with the idea of finally breaking that wild stallion of phobias: making a mistake, which as we all know, can carry more weight on the highway).

My compass instincts are too easily swayed. Growing up, I learned destinations via landmarks or through daily practice, not intuition or even common sense. "Turn at the next red barn with horses in the alfalfa fields" was a legitimate instruction. Imagine my surprise when I lived in cities where one wrong turn meant possibly circling for hours in a foreign land (which, yes, I have done, martyr that I sometimes am.)

I've been a visual learner on most of life's main roads, as well. For a writer, this can be dangerous, only in the sense that I went through college and my 20s always looking ahead to one version of "success" or another: what was the next thing I could read, publish, write, win? No pun intended (well, maybe), but I was driven with a capital "D." I wore what you could call "literary blinders," my life focused on what was just around the corner...

And who am I kidding? The blinders are comfortable, though kind of like texting while driving: really freakin' dangerous to your overall health. And now, the Internet brings us a constant hailstorm of journals and contests and blogs and reviews we did not write and have not written and maybe, if we let this realization sink in--we never will .

This is my old self talking. Or, at least this time of year, it's easier to hope that it is; that come Jan. 1, I'll be able to shed that layer of my self-snake-skin that follows around every artist: doubt. Seems at least once a year we have our mental burnout when we swear we will never write again...Thank god, we grow out of that version of our selves. Over and over, we step into a new road, breathless.

My dad once gave me a quote he'd read somewhere: "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to those less talented as a consolation prize." I used to let the heart of this steer me. But in the end, it just led me circling a city I'd never get to. (If I spend my whole life in a fog of creative entitlement, when will I actually get to enjoy the things I'm creating?) I think acceptance and groundedness trump doubt any day.

Here's the joy-bound slow lane academia never taught me: the drive isn't worth it if the gas tank's filled with the wrong stuff. I know, I know--enough aphorisms and metaphors. Here, "drive" means what makes us write every day. Here, "gas tank" means our storage of self-kindness, empathy, patience, and faith.

William Stafford once read a poem at an event where an audience member shouted "I could have written that!" Stafford thought for a moment, then said from the podium, "Well, you didn't... But you have a chance to write something of your own" (paraphrased from an excerpt in Early Morning... by Kim Stafford--a book, by the way, that has changed me).

For 50+ years, Stafford rose early to write, what he called "doing the hardest thing first." His usual pattern started at 4 a.m. (you can read that short sentence again if you need to). His days were filled with his family, teaching, correspondence, and a fiery love triangle with pacifism, literature, and nature.

After researching Stafford's work, here are the road signs I gleaned for the kind of life I want to lead, both on the page and off of it:

"Life Advice from William Stafford"

Do the hardest work first

Know there’s a thread, and follow it

Follow smoke’s way (be flexible, vulnerable, surprise-able)

Send your work into the world like water leaving a hilltop

Certainty & its anger can kill—even a little at a time

Know the weight of a happy problem

When you get stuck, lower your standards & keep going

Do not engage in war of any form

"Every person you meet has a god / and is an animal /
Find both"

Though technology has usually been at the root of some of my most stressful moments these past few months, I am grateful to be sitting here, blogging about an imperfect man and writer who knew who and what his shepherds were (and who has inspired me again to revisit the source of my craft and belief systems). I am grateful for an ocean of new creative work in the world where I am a small and stubborn wave. And I am grateful for that insistent female voice that will undoubtedly keep urging, "In one mile, get in the left lane."

May that voice be my own, and may I learn not to grit my teeth in unfamiliar territory. May that voice call me home, back to the constant advent called "a writing life."

"Turn," says the muse, says the next fresh morning, "Turn here."

("Follow the Shepherd Home" by Mindy Smith)

Friday, August 13, 2010

"How to Be Alone" (a poem-film)

Funny how technology can often encourage the fear of being alone. Autophobia. How appropriate, no? After all, many of us, happy to be on auto-pilot, experience withdrawal during hours without email, phones, cable, and Facebook. I'll be the first to admit that I've caved in and spent time with NetFlix when my goal was to dodge myself, when I didn't want to acknowledge my psyche or the Spirit.

Maybe "alone" is not the right word here, exactly. Maybe slowing down and realizing one's actual size in the universe is harder than we acknowledge it to be. Heck, I come from a people called "the quiet in the land," and (many? most?) of us are now just as much a part of the rat-race as greater society. Feel free to prove me wrong, please.

How would America change if spending time alone (in order to know the self more deeply) wasn't seen as a weakness? (I don't think it's an accident that I began to type "wean" back there!)

A friend sent an Online video to me today, and it really struck a chord. Check it out:
"How to Be Alone"

I hope, dear reader, that you're circled by community, by people who've learned and love the layers that are you. But I also hope you can take yourself out for a walk now and then, to a movie, a concert--and still feel held. Whole. Tilting towards happy.

Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua writes about carrying home on her back like a turtle--something she can never escape, but something she wants to keep reclaiming as her own. The self, too, gets transformed depending on where we take it, how we carry it, how we listen and react.

I'm turning off the computer now, the radio, the lights. The cicadas are the loudest they'll be this summer. They've been trying to get my attention. It's about time I let them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Growing Rhubarb: A Tribute to Art Gish


Tonight, I'm digesting the news that Athens has lost one of its pillar citizens.

Truth is, a peace activist willing to "walk the walk" will continue on through the people he knew worldwide and the convictions he published. But this doesn't make the news any easier to accept...

Art Gish saw bold beauty in living simply and in the sloppy footprints of love. This made him a mentor in the back-to-the-land movement and a controversial figure to some.

Like most people who knew him, I had moments with Art when I wanted to hug him and others when I wanted to run in the other direction. I say this with love--Art was a man willing to stand in front of an Israeli bulldozer; willing to look for God in a chapel, mosque, and synagogue in the same weekend; willing to do peace work in Gaza while his wife did peace work in Iraq; willing to stop you on the street to say his truest feelings, even if they made you uncomfortable. For someone who grew up in a community/family where confrontation was avoided, I was reminded that I still had a lot of inner work to do during those times when Art "shook me up."

I first sought out the Gishes after coming back from a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service (VS) in Seattle. I remember thinking that if I had to come back to Ohio, at least I was going to live in a place that had people like Art and Peggy. With no answering machine and no cell phones at their farm, it was harder to reach the Gishes than I planned. But I remembered my mom describing Art Gish from one of his many local talks on peace-making, and the first time I saw a man with a dazzling white beard and donning an Amish hat, I strode over to him and piped, "Mr. Gish?" He shook my hand and hurried us towards the court-house, where he was leading a peace vigil. One of the many reasons I went into VS was because I read Art's book, Beyond the Rat Race (as my parents did before me, then passed the book onto me)--and it challenged me, inspired me (and let's be honest, scared me). Still does today.

I also wanted to talk to the Gishes because of their experience doing peace work abroad. At the time, my parents were in Liberia with Mennonite Mission Network, and, as much as I wanted to deny it, as their youngest daughter, I was having difficulty processing their decision to leave--to put themselves in potential danger--for other childrens' sake. When my parents were in the States for a brief visit, the Gishes had us out for dinner, and we talked about poetry, farming, and the importance of being a witness.

"You're eating weeds!" Art told us proudly as we munched out dandelion and thistle salads. Everything had a surprising purpose, even if we thought it didn't. This was the mantra I took from the Gishes that night.

Art and Peggy sold produce at the local farmers' market; rhubarb was a regular pink wonder on their table of goods. I think that rhubarb might be a perfect metaphor for the daily activism Art chose to live. After all, "rhubarb" is not relished by everyone--even avoided by some; it's bold and unique and can be used with many other ingredients (but it will still be undeniable); it takes time to get established. But it comes back, year after year. And it gives, even when we don't want what it has to offer.

The last things I heard Art say on this Earth were:

(at a Quaker Meeting) "I want to say that I hear the birds singing, praising God--and I want to praise God too."


(after seeing a local film about the peace movement since the first Iraq War) "Where is everyone [in the movement now]? Where are they?"

In Beyond the Rat Race, he writes, "It is said that the longest journey begins with one step. So it is with simplicity."

So it is with peace, and so it is with marrying the "sour and sweet" together of knowing ourselves and one another in a life that offers many opportunities for us to turn away.

Let's not turn away.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Off You Go to Now"

I’ll admit it: one reason I drag myself to yoga is to hear the teacher say things like, “You are here now—forget the striving.”

Imagining a "writer" at work often invites us to conjure up Hollywood-inspired caricatures: someone who’s actually on vacation from the stressful real world; someone leaning back in a comfy chair with a tiny pink umbrella hovering in a drink; someone able to turn on the muses with a flick of the mental switch in order to wear all the hats in her or his life.

I’m starting to know many folks who consider writing to be their main "calling," and even the most successful have day jobs…and usually partners… and families… and in-laws and yards and houses and…well, you catch my drift. It’s a miracle we have people writing and publishing at all!

Ironically, since I started an intensive MFA in writing, the same message I long to hear from my yoga instructor has repeatedly surfaced from teachers. It’s that old nod to the truth that writing needs something more than a degree in order to keep it breathing.  

The MFA might teach us to shape and digest language at an Olympic rate, but if we’re pursuing it just to feel like a writer, we’re probably in the wrong spot with the wrong binoculars. And, as so many famous writers (so very ironically) remind us in their memoirs or interviews: if you’re writing toward the goal-light of publication or making a living writing, you might as well take up a different hobby.

Doing and giving are ingrained in my Mennonite self/gender. Making everything better comes in at a close third. Of course, you don’t have to be Mennonite to realize these generational or cultural patterns…As a writer, it’s pretty hilarious to watch my mind zigzag between wanting to be a good person vs. be true to my writing life. I’m not convinced you can’t be both/have both, but man, does it take discipline and self-forgiveness, playfulness and practice with a capital “P.”

Luckily, life has a way of handing us reminders, interventions, and even miraculous traffic lights when it comes to our lit passions:

From a latest MFA evaluation letter:
“Maybe the most important thing for Becca's art in the near future will be to set more limits on the demands that her life invites her to make—teaching assignments, community service—values that are deeply ingrained in her yet often at odds with more selfish indulgences that are the mainstay of every poet’s diet.”

Gift from an elder:
A copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s YOU ARE HERE, with “Now you are here. Off you go to now” handwritten inside its cover.

May you open a book and find this same permission. May you open your life and find you are already what and who you want to be. And with each day, may you get to be this person a little more.

(photo: Athens graffiti,  B. Lachman)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Prophets" for a New Season

I teach a college-level composition course called "Women and Writing," its theme concentrated on "Women and 'Worship.'" While we certainly examine texts written by women raised in or practicing varying faiths, we mostly transform the definition of "worship" itself.

By this, I mean we look more closely at what American culture truly reveres, what it might expect a "gender" to love or reflect, and what we "worship" in our daily living. My students can relate to how a culture "transforms" a term (just ask them about their "friends" on Facebook).

However, when we transform a definition tied to something normally sacred, it's a difficult process. My students, not yet seniors in college for the most part, rarely take the time to ponder what they voluntarily spend the most time, energy, and money pursuing. It's scary. It's invigorating. It causes them to slow down, take stock, create a "close reading" of their lives and national identity, so to speak (or, that's at least what I hope happens on some level).

Next week, my students will present on female "prophets," meaning someone influential, a great teacher, a "trail-blazer." This "prophetess" is not necessarily popular and can be controversial in her message or lifestyle. From Lady Gaga to Sarah Palin, these student presentations always teach me more than words can say. I look at my students, their choices of what "prophets" shape their identity and culture, and wonder about the world they will create, uphold, demand...not that I'm too far from the Millenial Generation myself. But to stake a claim in the "me" generation can feel like a confession, right?

In my last post, I spoke of my hubby's job being cut to part-time. Little did we know that it would turn into a full lay-off. My job, too, is now at stake. I haven't blogged for awhile because what I have been "worshipping" has taken most of my mental energy. I began to question everything, from staying in grad school to the hierarchy of academia (though I am a lowly adjunct, I hope to keep teaching at the college level) to being an American to possibly moving across the country...My "prophet" became this invisible shadow-self, a constant hover-cloak of doubt and anxiety. And she was powerful.

As the dust settled and I began to look at our situation as a possible window we might never have opened otherwise, I've been seeking out other "prophets":
* singer-songwriters like Patty Griffin
* the strong women writers I teach
* Rumi
* generations of women in my family who have abundently lived and dreamt in the midst of "living with less"
* the Holy Spirit (and yes, I've always supposed the Spirit is female)
*even different versions of the self, parts of me that have grown--and most importantly learned--from change

It's May. A green May--water running in the streets. Thunderstorm after thunderstorm...and what grows after, what comes after, what is still there.

Who are your "prophets"? What would they ask (of ) you today?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Nights Like These, I Want to Be the Speaker in a Mary Oliver Poem

I went to an art exhibit today centered around "the figure"--bold ceramic creations that stretched assumptions about the human body. While I was pondering this art, my hubby got the call; we'd been expecting it as budget cuts began to affect more folks we knew. In July, we will most likely be joining the 40 million+ Americans without health care coverage, due to his job being dropped to part-time.

Suddenly, the elephant in the room has actually learned to talk. The questions start bubbling: What about finishing school? What about possible future children? What about the world that we imagined? We know we're not alone in this questioning, and we also know that, as Americans, our lives will still be privileged on the worst of days. But funny how quickly the mind breaks away from the body in times like these, when it screams I'm in charge now! Even now, my cheeks are flushed, my shoulders hunched forward, my whole body heavy with "What nows?"

Last night's post subject seems a wee bit ironic in hindsight...As an artist, I am used to society either deeming the work I do as "not worthy of health insurance" or making it impossible for me to receive benefits by keeping me part-time (adjuncting, for instance).  I have also been down the road of catastrophic-only insurance plans...and spent more moola on unnecessary tests (needed due to stress, go figure!) than I ever plan to again.

So...I will not let this post become a rant, no worries. I will choose this new road as an opportunity to simplify my life even more, to connect mind + body into something stronger than fear.

Feel free to quote me these lines in the next few months. Unwelcome change can actually be what leads to a fuller life...We shall see. Now's the time to walk the talk. Now's the time to see what life has to offer vulnerability...

Glad I have the opening daffodils today--evidence that expected change can be lovely, bright; they're proof that we can't keep a season for long. So are poems:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

"Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Anabaptist Learns Tai Chi: My Own Health's Reform

It may sound funny, impossible even--but I'm always trying to leave...myself.

My mental bags are continuously packed, my metaphorical pedal pressed to the floor called "go!" In many ways, I'm trying to get away--or at least, I tell myself, move forward; I'm often longing for something in the past, something dizzy in the future. One thought barely has time to process before the next to-do list blooms. 

Over the past two years, I've added other priorities to my mental to-do lists:
*set aside time for silence (not even music in the background, which is sometimes excruciating!)
*test reality in the now
*say no with respect for yourself when necessary--and accept that you can't please everyone
*walk in meditation
*eat something mindfully
*learn to receive gracefully
*do morning yoga or tai chi (if only for 10 minutes)
*get a monthly massage

When I claim I don't have time to re-connect with my body, I find others who know the power of "centering down" because I know the consequences if I don't (life's "dramas" spike, digestion gets iffy, sleeplessness settles in my covers, suddenly a month has passed & I have no idea how my friends and family are doing, etc...) My big sister might say, "Ah, but you can think about slowing down because you don't have kids!" Yes, there's a crunchy layer of truth to this. But... I also know parents who take a half hour every day to center themselves, to refuel in a way that does not include turning the mind "off"--but rather, reconnects to it.

Most often, my quest to reconnect includes going to a weekly yoga class, a Quaker Meeting, or on a long walk by the river; even cooking calms me down (sometimes!) enough to braid together body, mind, and the current moment. Since 2007, I've been drawn to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction MBSR, a daily routine of both meditation and meditative movement. I chuckle when imagining many congregations I know being asked to sit mindfully for more than three minutes; I chuckle, but I come from these same wooden pews. I have to practice slowing down my life...then, and only then, do I see and experience things I would've never noticed otherwise.

You'd think a poet-songwriter would have "slowing down enough to focus" down to an art...but we writers use our minds so much that our bodies often get left behind. We forget them in order to get things done, to be productive, creative, social or (fill in the blank here). I'm probably not the only one who was subconsciously taught that mind was holier than body, that their careful separation was ultimately a good thing. Real education takes some unlearning too, yes?

We've heard a lot of talk about the body lately, what with health care reform making fireworks. I do have to wonder how much we still stubbornly take the body/mind connection for granted, how repetitive mental stress contributes to overall well-being. So I'm hopeful that I will live to see the day when worrying about having health care benefits is a thing of the past.

Until then, I can work on my own health's reform. I won't need 2,000 pages to know a daily practice, however flawed or inconsistent, is a good kind of reaching...

"In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger--these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone..." (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World) 
 Photo credit: B. Lachman 2004, Dale Chihuly exhibit

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An Annotated Life

Like most writers, I crave good reading.

For about five years, I've been hooked on THE SUN, an ad-free journal that leaves me feeling--quite simply--more connected to reality, the underbelly of humanity (Insert Hallmark commercial here, sure. But it's true.) When I read something that moves me, challenges me, or just plain knocks my socks off, I tend to annotate it: write notes in the margins, highlight passages, dog-ear the tiny tips of pages to lead me back, again and again, to that sense of connection or emotion felt so fully.

As a writer, I spend a lot of my day on my computer. After dinner, sometimes I feel as though my awake time rushed by without me as much as pulling out a tail feather.

So how do I change this sense of constant motion tied to a lack of mindfulness? How can I annotate my everyday life?

* * *

It's no surprise that many read-ables once found only in print are now available on the Internet--or at least parts of them are. THE SUN is no different, and this morning I came across an article called "Computing the Cost...How the Internet is Rewiring Our Brains."

Worth a careful read...especially for those who spend hours in front of a screen of any kind.

I'm not about to say that technology is Diablo-worthy. This blog is proof of my swirling thoughts on its "reign," proof that I'm always looking for others who struggle with staying in the "in-between-ness" of it all. Any tips and testimonies on balancing the high-tech whirlwind are always taken to heart.

I come from a culture that knows how technology can separate us, speed up our lives to the point of living one blurry day after another. Sound familiar, anyone? But I also claim a family of writer friends and mentors whose daily goal is to communicate; ignoring the Web's dominance would be dismissing a Goliath way to connect. Yet it seems we are creating generations of "skimmers"--and not only when it comes to reading.

As a teacher who roams the streets of a college town daily (this sounds more mysterious than saying "I walk most places"), I notice conversations--or lack thereof. In class, my students shy away from deep reflection, even in ten-minute intervals. Fifty minutes of not having a laptop or cellphone in front of them seems like torture on some days. More than this, though, I notice a dwindling vocabulary (this applies to me at times, as well!). The same phrases used, over and over. Short sentences, interrupted statements, the f-bomb used as multiple parts of speech, eyes that tell me brains are ceaselessly multi-tasking.

In war-torn nations, a limited, repetitive vocabulary is a sign of years of "survival mode." But here in the U.S., we maintain the ranking of world's biggest military and consumer power. Are we on "survival mode" somehow?  If so, what are we running from--or perhaps, the more logical question--what "keeps us running" at such high speeds and in such constant stimulation that our face-to-face language is literally being taken away from us ?

* * *

In THE SUN article mentioned above,  Nicholas Carr admits "there are broad social and economic changes underway that reward Internet use. If you cherish the ability to concentrate deeply and be reflective, you need to set aside time to read and think every day, so that those circuits in your brain don’t get erased."

What does it take these days to center us? What happens when our only "me time" occurs on a daily commute or in front of a TV screen? Somehow I doubt that adding a favorite Web page to my "bookmarks" list will give me satisfying inner-reflection or deeper digestion of the real world around me.

Or is it too much to hope for a pendulum swing in the brain--back to a time when we could go for a day, half a week, without high speed anything...? I don't know, but I want to believe it is possible. For now, I'll know my power to reflect and connect presents itself quietly throughout my day--first, in the decision to turn off my computer. At least for the rest of the afternoon.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Maneuvering Mentor-ship

I have a writer friend who takes her poetic mentors very seriously: their names are tattooed in an elaborate calligraphy-ied band around her arm.

What if we all carried our mentors so publicly? Would we/do we always joyfully claim them? Obviously, sometimes those who affect us the most are so close to us, we don't always acknowledge their powerful influences...and sometimes we look for mentor-ship in the "safest" of places. In 2010, that might mean we let technology feed us more "mentors" than real life.

According to, a "mentor" is
1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2. an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

I don't know about you, but I crave guidance from those who have "been there" before me--at certain times in my life, wise women of many ages have quite literally kept me breathing out and breathing in. (Not that men haven't also, but women have been vital to this rocky road of moving away from my religious/cultural community and into a life of marriage and art and chasing the wider-world-muse.)

I've had a lot of time to spend alone at home this winter. I'm writing and reading and trying out soup recipes; I'm penning letters and deep spring cleaning. And I'm also craving some of the old music/media that once "mentored" at least a part of me. This means that Tori Amos has shaken the walls of our house on more than one occasion this past week. Her lyrics remind me of a time when I first questioned feminism, relationships, my voice, and other people--when I first put my version of the "truth" into a song, a story, a conversation--and stood by it.

Other women have encouraged me to express the self in deeper ways, but my mind first jumps to fictional characters, musicians, and authors (most I've never met) before those real-life mentors. Am I more in tune to the "Millennial Generation" than I like to admit? Do I have a more consistent "relationship" with TV characters (say, Meredith from Grey's Anatomy, as a random--though some days sadly true--example) or certain Facebook "friends" than I might with in-the-flesh people? Am I a mindful mentor to someone else? Do my mentors sometimes teach me things/attitudes/habits that are actually harmful or unrealistic?

As winter softens into spring and I become less of a willing recluse, these are questions I will keep chewing on...

Here are some of my past & present "mentors":
* Laura from Little House on the Prairie--I was drawn to her sass, and the TV show was one of the few things we were allowed to watch growing up
*poet Sharon Olds--taught me I could write about anything; she still reminds me to stay rooted in my own body
*writer Gloria Anzaldua--humbled me into seeing a different version of history/heterosexism, changed the way I see immigration laws
*12th century abbess/composer Hildegard von Bingen--I still want to believe in songs and words that come from somewhere "Bigger" than ourselves
*The speaker in the Psalms
*Tori Amos--when I play out, it's just me and my piano ('nough said)
*Dar Williams/The Indigo Girls/Patti Griffin--taught me that songwriters can be serious poets too
*Felicity and Angela from "Felicity"/"My So-Called Life"--walked me through high school and undergrad, fed my "need" for drama in my life (I am a recovering "angst-addict"--well, off of the page, anyway!)
*poet Julia Kasdorf--showed me that American Mennonite women can write from the very core of the self--and thrive doing so
*My Grandma Ruth--told me to write instead of turn on the TV--but has also carried on generations of expected silence, passive/aggressiveness
*My big sister--though we've chosen different paths, she models what it means to be a mindful wife and mother.
*Mi madre--as cliche as it may seem to claim this mentor, my mom continues to teach me to reach for what matters; that it's never too late to tell the world, "No this is who I am."
* Fellow writers via emails, Facebook, etc.--I'm grateful for these "web mentors" (but nothing compares to sitting in the same room with them!)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Top 10 songs Michael Jackson never wrote about the Mennonites...

(taken from the 2009 Mennonite National Convention daily newspaper poll)

10: "Smooth Criminal... (but only if we're stealing peace)"
9: "We Serve the World"
8: "(Not So)Bad"
7: "Miller" (think "Thriller")
6: "Thresh It"
5: "Beat It (into plowshares)"
4: "Menno in the Mirror"
3: "Menno Jean"
2: "M.C.C. (123)"
1: (It's) Black/ (It's) White...(okay, it's mostly white, but we're working on that)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mennonite Meter: On a Scale of 1-10...

"Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other." Adrienne Rich

One of my favorite “self portrait” photos hangs permanently on our fridge. Living out West, I asked my Grandma to send me a Halloween costume, which she purchased at her local used clothing store. The result was more than a bit spooky: a full Swartzentruber Amish outfit that fit as if it has been made for me. In the photo, I pull off the costume well; my cheeks are flushed, eyes shining. It’s obvious that I’ve been laughing for awhile. This is because someone has handed me an unopened bottle of vodka, which I am cradling a la 1950s housewife style, donning my Amish attire:
 When I study the photo now, I am both gleeful and melancholy. In a lot of ways, it represents a fixed cultural identity I strain against. I also think about the Amish woman who donated the black dress and bonnet, how different we are even though we come from the same religious ancestors. What is she like? How many children does she have? Is she happy without all the extra layers in life I am convinced I need (restaurants, cars, masters degrees, long stretches of time to myself)?

Within the first few hours of meeting someone, my Mennonite faith usually surfaces in conversation. From there, the list of questions swarms. You can imagine them: “So…are you Amish? Does your dad drive a buggy? Did you go to high school?”

I am not used to being such an anomaly; in my hometown, most people I knew were Amish, Mennonite, or had family members in the church. Most of all, I am still not used to explaining Mennonite core values as if I am an expert (there are variations of us, some much stricter than others, just like other denominations).

But the question that always rattles me is, “How are Mennonites different from the rest of us?”

This doesn’t seem like such an overwhelming request. But it’s complicated. I desperately want us to be unique from mainstream “American” Christianity. And I think some people are disappointed that my upbringing wasn’t, in at least some ways, much different from their own. "Born Mennos" are also unique from those who choose to join the church, and I want to represent them in my answer. When explaining my answers to the above loaded question,  I find myself wondering just how “Mennonite” I really am, let alone the larger denomination now disconnected from the Conservative church...

Here are my answers:

1)   Overall, we still relate to and support a community identity mentality more than most. Passed on by generations, this stems from historic events, mainly severe persecution in Europe and our emigration to the U.S. and Canada, where we kept to ourselves for social and spiritual survival— thus, our nickname “the quiet in the land.”  While many churches don’t formally shun members anymore, layers of social exclusion still exist. Just try being an outgoing female minister or a black man in a rural congregation. (Now remember: I am speaking from a rural Mennonite’s perspective.)
2)   We are one of the original “peace churches,” though as we assimilate more into mainstream culture, not all Mennonites are pacifists (an issue that baffles me). My Grandpa did alternative service during WWII, for example, as a smokejumper. (side note: Alternative service still exists for young people who want to serve the U.S. without joining the military.) My family supports the Peace Tax Fund, legislation that would allow for those of us with moral reasons for opposing war to choose for our taxes to go elsewhere. Go figure. Imagine that world…
3)   On that same note, it’s unusual for Mennonites not to do some type of humanitarian service in their lifetimes, usually long-term (a year or more). I did Mennonite Voluntary Service like my parents (who were also missionaries in W. Africa). Mennonite Central Committee is one of the organizations that started microbusiness percolating and was active in fair trade from its beginning. The list goes on and on. While Mennonites have a stellar record in helping the international world, we’re still learning to embrace "the others” around and among us. This is my humble opinion (see #1).
4)   Simplicity is as simplicity does. Walk into most Mennonite congregations today, and you might not see any glaring differences between its members and other protestant church’s. Even in my mom’s youth, the women (with head coverings) sat on one side of the church, and the men on the other. Though Mennos are much more “in/of the world” today, I think many strive to live by the proverb, “The best things in life aren’t things.”
5)   Music is part of our identity. The only time I’ve seen grown men cry has been during hymn sings, especially if the hymn is in German. Four-part, a cappella music has a mysterious power, connecting yet again back to answer #1.
6)   Though some will deny it, Mennonites still avoid conflict and confrontation (Some scholars say this is due to our persecution in earlier centuries or by the various church splits over the years, now carried to current generations. Who knows.) I still catch myself apologizing when someone bumps into me or saying “yes” to things and people when I ache to say “no.” I know, I know—these habits aren’t necessarily “Mennonite."But there's definitely a fear of schisms in our community.

A new memoir recently hit bookstores titled Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. While it's gotten strong reviews—and certain parts really did make me guffaw—it dances past the fine line between exploration of one’s upbringing and the exploitation of that same upbringing. I didn’t find the speaker, who's left the church, transformed or reverent at the book’s end like some reviews claim. Sure, it's easy for me to be critical. As I straddle two worlds--one where I am a creative writer, feminist, and individual; the other, where I am part of a cultural community that in many ways defines me--the thought of writing my own memoir is enough to give me instant heartburn!

So that begs the question: How (fill in the blank here) are you? And how would you explain being (fill in the blank) to others?  And--oh horror of horrors--how would you write about it: your version of it, your "truth" on paper?