Friday, October 19, 2012

Discomfort In The Pew

This particular preacher was quite a character. He liked to preach with the mic off, because he knew he could — and would — project to the back of the balcony without amplification.

And this particular listener was in his early-20s — just old enough to see with absolute clarity through the skein of some 2000 years of received wisdom. A perilous age, especially for men.

The preacher was going on and on about this truck he'd seen in some convention centre somewhere — this big truck, this monster truck, shiny with chrome and powerful beyond all reasonable measure. But it was in the showroom. It wasn't there to do anything, just sit there and look impressive. This truck looked like it could move mountains. But nobody bothered with even starting the engine.

And was this not the perfect metaphor for the Church — even our church — here, today? We look so good, but when are we going to start the engine and demonstrate what we can really do? When are we . . . .

Etc., etc.

The listener had his hands clamped on the pew below him, to keep from standing up and walking out — or worse. All that sap, running through such a green tree. He was tempted to spring up and ask, “Why? So we can have more suburban churches?”

Suburban churches — no, that wasn't quite what was bugging the listener.

“So we can keep killing art with our 'message'?”

Here we go, now we're cooking.

“Look at our bookshelves.”

Preach it!

“Look at the movies we make. Look at what we've done to rock 'n'rollAre we to do that with every vibrant thing on this planet?”

Yeah, well. I stayed seated and kept my mouth shut. Friends had dropped similar neutron-bombs of indignation in their family churches, and it helped to recall the unanticipated fallout zone of embarrassment that followed.

I asked myself different questions. Like, “Why get so worked up? If people want to shower and dress up for this sort of thing, why piss in their punchbowl? Why not, instead, take the hint and stay home?”

So that's what I did. Until I didn't — because every home is haunted . . .  

"Angry Mennonites" -- and me.

During a recent visit, my father surprised me with a question: “Do you read any of the 'Angry Mennonites'?”

I asked him if this was a formally defined group, like Gertrude Stein's “Lost Generation” or Lauren Bacall's “Rat Pack,” and he admitted the term was amorphous, but commonly used among his peers. Who were the usual suspects, I wondered. He came up with the expected list: Miriam Toews, Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Sandra Birdsell — basically the only Mennonites receiving what passes for prestige treatment in Canadian publishing. I said they could be difficult to avoid, but I somehow managed.

A bit of a dodge, that. The truth is I've read enough of all those guys to know I have no interest in the larger monologue. If asked about the moral/immoral legacy of the Mennonites and the psychic burdens their theology and pieties place on the individual, I can fill in the blanks pretty quickly all by myself. In fact, I have filled in the blanks.

Last winter as I prepared to attend my grandmother's funeral, my wife pressed a notebook to me and said, “You should start writing. Now.”

So I reminisced as I flew to the prairies. It was pleasant, for the most part, but there was no escaping the single largest fact in all this: I had physically removed myself from the environment I grew up in, putting considerable geographical and spiritual and “Lifestyle” distance between me and the clan that raised me. You want grievances? Scribner doesn't make a large enough notebook.

Which probably cuts to the heart of my father's concern. His question was likely a dodge, to begin with. The question he probably meant to ask was, “You're not an angry Mennonite — are you, son?”

Well . . . yeah, Pop: I'm afraid I am.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Prairie Cemetery: Beauty & The Dead

I can be dismissive of the mortician's art, challenging though it may be. When death settles into a face, its individuality and beauty completely disappear. The mortician puts considerable effort into reconstructing who this person was, in life. Usually what one sees in an open casket falls within the failing end of the spectrum, which I'm prone to thinking is as it should be. We do not behold our loved one; we behold what remains of her.

This time, however, the mortician's art seemed inspired. I was struck by the beauty of my grandmother's lifeless mien. I saw her as I hadn't seen her in many, many years. In this reconstructed face shone a bold projection of the person she had been — not just recently, but as a young woman, even as a child.

She had once been a young woman, a mother of four who, incredibly, never raised her voice at them. Hers wasn't a shouting temperament, mind you, but I also suspect her own earliest childhood memories informed her conduct. She had once been a three-year-old, who cooled her mother's forehead with a wet cloth, as the young woman fought the grip of Spanish Influenza — and lost. Less than a year later, when her father hitched up the wagon and rode off, promising to bring home “a new mother for you,” this three-year-old waited in anticipation. When the wagon returned with a woman who was clearly not her mother, this little girl threw a fit. Following a spanking and earnest talking-to, the new rules of behaviour were laid out and followed.

Standing in the funeral home and seeing the chimera of that little girl, it struck me that this person, whose face this once was, had always seen with the eyes of that three-year-old — certainly when beholding her own children, then grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren, but also when greeting the various souls a pastor's wife is compelled to greet. These people exist in varying states of need, and approach the pastor's house either in a shabby disguise, or clearly naked in their insufficiency. Either way, my grandmother set the table for them, and listened to the stories they told her husband as they broke bread together.

Most people didn't put on airs when they were with this woman. I don't think they felt the need: my grandmother had a remarkable capacity to withhold judgement. I think she understood, as only a heart-broken three-year-old can, that we all look to the faces of others and harbour yearnings so fierce we can only name them when we are disappointed.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Prairie Cemetary (But First, A Quick Stop At Home)

Ah, but who am I to talk? When it comes to beauty we can live with, I am the prince of procrastination.

Our house is nearly 200 years old. When we first moved in, my wife took down the wallpaper, only to discover that, in the bathroom at least, there was no wall behind the paper. On the upside, this has kept the bathroom well-ventilated.

On the downside, it's the ugliest room in the building, and we use it every day. I could give you a sheet of reasons why I don't get to this project. Some of them are pretty solid, too — even experienced renovators are loath to touch bathrooms. But every morning this one ugly room confronts and sneers at my failure of nerve.

And every morning I shrug it off and face some other pressing task. It is, after all, a bathroom — the one room in the house where the contemplation of the beautiful has a piquant irony of its own.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Trailer Park

My grandmother on my mother's side passed away shortly before Christmas. She was 96, the last of my living grandparents. For the last few years she'd been living in a care home in a prairie township I'll dub Graben der Freude. My aunt and her husband farm there; most of my aunt's kids have taken up the plough as well.

I spent my high school summers there, helping my uncle out. He and my aunt granted the (much) larger favour by having me. I had no head for the work, but remember those summers fondly.

As my brother drove me, our sister and our father to the funeral, my eye drifted over the landscape, nudging my memory over the contours and conversations and looney-toons adventures of adolescence.

There's one final curve in the road into town. If you go straight, you'll get to the outdoor pool, where I'd go with friends on Sunday afternoons, to cool off in the water, meet up with girls (if we were lucky) and fish for giggles and a pinch.

Keep tight to the curve and you encounter the trailer park.

These singles and double-wides are held together with bailer-twine and duct tape. Most of them have a wood-stove chimney-pipe sticking out the top, and in winter you pass through a tarry cloud of poplar smoke. The whole quarter acre looks like something out of The Grapes Of Wrath, with Mexican Mennonites standing in for bitter, disaffected Okies.

It's Graben's slum, really. And because Graben is so small, its presence is inescapable. Step out of one of those trailers, pick up a stone and throw it, and, depending on the direction you're facing, you could strike the village school, the fair grounds, a church, or the care facility my grandmother lived and died in.

We drove past it shortly before noon. We'd agreed to meet the rest of the family for lunch, but since that wasn't going to happen for another half-hour we pulled up to the grocery store, where we bought some cheese curds from the local factory.

As we sat and nibbled on these little knobs of inoffensive cheese, I wondered why Graben wasn't a prettier town. I grew peevish the longer I meditated on it. In fact, why beat around the bush? Graben is butt-ugly. It's a Canadian Prairie farm-town, and most of those are of a piece: cobbled together with materials found, and quickly, so that the real work could get attended to.

This makes the aesthetic explicable, but hardly comforting. The town has been around for a century, if not longer. As farmers, we got the jump on Nature fifty-plus years ago when we embraced petroleum and its manifold gifts. You'd think we'd take that opportunity to address the business of quality of life, before Nature rallied and set us back on our heels. We settled instead for television.

Why the hell is beauty such a distant concern for my people? It isn't like we lack pride. But with us it always has to be practicalities first. Get the barns up, get the crops in, get the canning done. If you've got some spare time, work on the quilt.

The problem is, practicalities ye shall always have with thee — even in prosperous times. Thus are we endowed with a cultural heritage of vibrant four-part harmonies, lavish quilts, and cheap feed.