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Our German Relative

Our German Relative

By Mitchell Toews

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that sprawling snowy sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

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Not too far from Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea, there was once a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language the Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, thisLehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native PlautdietschObah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the simplest Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour!

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What Grandma is saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

So, now…little Rosa was very excited and too young then to grasp the full extent of the ban. She felt that taking away Christmas was like a game the adults played – the government on one side, trying to catch you; the parents and kids on the other side, trying to be clever and feeling the dangerous exhilaration of outsmarting the apparatchiks and their stuffy No-Christmas rules.

Christmas baking was one of many pieces in this complex game. Most Mennonite families still made Christmas cookies and other festive treats, but these traditions were known to the officials and were part of the ban. Christmas cookies were kept secret and were hidden.

A few days before Christmas Day one year, Rosa joined the game. That day, her mother had baked a batch of these secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her boots squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked, the answer would be no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class. Desperately saving for passage to strange, distant destinations like Canada, America, and Mexico, the families of Molotschna had little left over. And, of course, no one in any of the Russian Mennonite Colonies gave gifts for Christmas.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty; all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her heels like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and to the large white-faced clock on the wall behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna.

 

molotschna sm
Page 232, “Building on the Past”, Raduga Publications, Rudy P. Friesen

 

You see, Fraulein Rosenfeld was much revered by the officials who ran the school. They saw her presence as a special concession to the Mennonites. On the other hand, the local teachers felt it was a slight to them and they treated her with cool disdain. For Fraulein, from a remote dairy farm in southern Germany, this teaching position was Godsent. It combined her gift for language and her love of children. To her, some minor social distance was a small price to pay. But ask any oma or opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – why what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to find them, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

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Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjrist’owend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. With this visitor, never distant though she came from far away and long ago, our Christmas was complete.

 

Reprints and re-blogs are welcome. A version of this fiction appeared on Red Fez Christmas, 2016.

The Business of Saving Souls on SickLit

Update: My prickly story about the conflation of business, big church and politics appears on SickLit Magazine today, May 15.

This is a reprint of the story which first appeared on another of my favourite literary journals, Literally Stories.

This is what SickLit Senior Editor Nicole Ford Thomas had to say about it:

“I really like “The Business of Saving Souls,” as it seems at first like a warm and fuzzy church parable about doing good, but down deep, it’s a lesson about standing up to corruption–all corruption–and fighting to take care of each other.”

SickLit recently ran a reprint of another of my stories, “The Rothmans Job”, which first appeared on the vibrant Canadian literature site, CommuterLit. I have a total of seven stories on CommuterLit and another five on Literally Stories. Thanks to the editors of all of these exceptional online literary journals!

I hope you enjoy the pieces and welcome your comments.

Special thanks to the editors at SickLit. They are awesome sauce. (Or, “hosanna!” as they’d read responsively at the NTCCF.)

Allfornow – Mitch

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

 

Update: 4.11.17 – Hi, from a sunny day in April, beside the lake,

Janice and I have been travelling and have both been down with a cold lately. My blog activity has been limited, though I have been able to keep up with daily writing. Today I heard from editor and literary paragon, Charlie Fish, that another of my stories has been accepted for his award-winning site, Fiction on the Web.

Feedspot has named FotW a TOP 20 short story site on the internet!

Short-story_20_transparent_216pxHere’s what Charlie says about FICTION on the WEB: “It is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world.

FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet.”

Here are a few snippets from my latest story:

The Beefeater and the Donnybrook

By Mitchell Toews

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017

MICAH JAMES WAS shorter than average and had an interesting kind of face. His eyes were recessed and penetrating and his complexion had the weathered texture and ruddy colour of a mountain climber or a big game hunter. He was neither. Micah James was a quiet, middle-aged family man – an engineer working for the City of Halifax in Canada.

The Jameses were leaving together soon on a long-awaited trip to London. His wife, Marion, had planned the trip from the packing process through tipping and all conceivable forms of disaster planning.

[SNIP]

“Ok, I’m on it! Walk will do me good.” Micah said, giving Marion an assuring glance and summoning up some energy for the trip. It was fine – the kind of little blip he had been secretly hoping for.

[SNIP]

Twisting in his crouch, Micah was eyeball to kneecap with a pair of creased black pants, gold piping on the sides. His eyes followed the stripes up to a white satin tunic and topping that, a dapper red fez. Then the voice again, but softer, “Are you alright, mate?”

[SNIP]

He waited in line at the reception desk, listening to an instrumental version of a Bob Dylan song. It was piping out of a speaker in the tile ceiling above him and he laid his head back to peer at it. Thinking of his own rapid descent into hell, he picked detritus from his oily beard; bits of styrofoam and other rancid urban spod. His thinning hair hung in limp disarray and the belt of the raincoat had come loose and was dragging on the ground behind him like an obedient, filthy snake.

[SNIP]

See it on FotW on May 19: an ever-worsening yarn that plays out on the streets of central London. 

Other stories that have appeared on Fiction on the Web:

Nothing to Lose

July 8, 2016. A baker and former hockey player reminisces on his colourful history as he delivers buns in the dusty Manitoba sun.

Heavy Artillery

Oct. 30, 2016. The story of young Matty and his characterful neighbour encountering a travelling salesman in the sleepy Manitoba town of Hartplatz.

The Preacher and His Wife

 Jan. 23, 2017. In Hartplatz, rural Canada, a neighbourhood scandal brews when young Sarah reports that her grandmother’s engagement ring has gone missing.

The Rothmans Job

February 19, 2017 UPDATE

SickLitMagazine has advised that they will be publishing a reprint of “The Rothmans Job” which first appeared (see below) on CommuterLit.com.

The story will run in late March or early April.

sicklit

allfornow – Mitch

January 30, 2017 UPDATE

TODAY, this twisted Canadian yarn, born in absurd truth and transported on the wings of a fictional 1991 prairie storm, is published by CommuterLit – a Toronto based online purveyor of morning short stories, lox and bagels. (And they are all out of lox and bagels.) 

http://commuterlit.com/

If a Neo-Noir Xmas Tragicomedy sub-genre exists, then this story belongs there. If not, then maybe this story inspires it?

A snowy night. An unlocked warehouse. A characterful materfamilias.

The Rothmans Job – EXCERPTS
By Mitchell Toews
.
A STORM LIKE THIS was rare. Snowflakes blocked out sky and sun and moon and stars. The flakes – as big as baby fists – had been falling for three days. Light and dry, they flew, then settled, then flew again – whipped by a dodgy north wind. At night, the tops of buildings disappeared except for the occasional glimpse of a red tower beacon or a snapping row of flags, like those atop The Bay.
.
Through this otherworld trudged Waxman and Thunderella. Waxman led. He wore two snowmobile suits and his knees could not bend more than a few degrees. Lumbering and stiff, he plowed through drifts for his female accomplice, Ellen Thundermaker.
.
[snip]
.
“No way, Waxy. It’s gonna be all imported cheese and fancy wine. Crab meat. Vienna sausages…” she said, stopping to let him join in.
.
“Ha-ha. Yeah – uhh, Heineken beer, Dijon ketchup, Swiss chocolate – or, you know, one of those giant bars, ahh,”
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“TOBLERONE, TOBLERONE!” she shouted out, filling in the missing name.
.
“AS if,” she added, suddenly serious…
.
[snip]
.
(about 2,400 words)   Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2017.

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Waxman, Thunderella, Pegasus, Otto the inventor, the police, Pozzo, Roland, and (in absentia) Poland, all look forward to making your acquaintance.

allfornow – Mitch

Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction Contest

Thanks, danke seea, to the Humber Literary Review and the Creative Nonfiction Collective for placing my story, “The Mighty Hartski” on the longlist for this year’s contest. A blintering, stellar array of writers and me, happy to be in this stacked stack.

Shortlist in early June. The winner will be announced at the CNFC annual conference. Bonne Chance to all the finalists.

“Rommedriewe!”

Books for Sale!

I have a story in a funky little anthology that’s coming out on July 2.

“Small Shifts: Short Stories of Fantastical Transformation” is a collection of ten fantasy stories from Lintusen Press (Shawn L. Bird). My contribution is “I am Otter,” a short story about a distraught Jessica Lake otter and the social unrest encountered by a congregation of “Otterites.”

Life presents particular mortifications when your alternate form is a dung beetle or a bumblebee. Featuring stories by Chris McMahen, Finnian Burnett, Mitchell Toews, Shawn L. Bird, Jarrod K. Williams, Lee F. Patrick, Patricia Lloyd, Jessica DeLand, Batya Guarisma, Philip Mann, and Andrew G. Cooper”

Pre-orders (e-books) are open for business, print expected July 2.

https://books2read.com/Prose-by-Toews


E-books $4.99 USD. Print $9.99 USD, 6″X9″ 122 pages. 

#shapeshifters #collection #ebooks #prosebytoews

Flyway- A Captivating Family Story That Will Have You Asking Hard Questions

There are many great books about the various disruptive Mennonite experiences. People and place stories. Trauma stories. Healing stories. MaryLou’s descriptive review makes me want to read this one.

What Next?

In her beautiful book Flyway Sarah Ens tells her Mennonite grandmother Anni’s story in the form of a long poem. We begin in Ukraine during the period between 1929 and 1945. Anni’s little sister dies, the churches close and Anni’s father is arrested and taken away. Famine comes.

Hunger taught us to wake slowly, to lift, as if from water.
If you did not starve, hunger taught you

to watch and wait. If you did not starve,
the stone of your stomach turned traitor.

Anni does housework and childcare for her younger siblings while attending school and then graduates just as the Germans invade Ukraine. Amid the war Anni’s brother Peter drowns.

Where is God my mother said.
I saw his body blue beneath a smooth skin of water

After a time of German occupation the Red Army approaches and

evacuees crawled the road……..
35,000 stumbling through the murk. You…

View original post 433 more words

Dappled Thoughts

Image: James Farl Powers, 1917-1999

Dappled Things has announced the finalists for its 2022 J.F. Powers Prize for Fiction, and I am one of the 28 authors selected.

“Well, now,” I said to myself, “I sometimes do interviews with other writers. Why not do one with me? An auto-interview?”

So here it is, with inspiration from interview subjects near and far, young and old, Catholic and Mennonite…

What drew you to this contest?

That is an excellent question. You are not only handsome but wise. Okay, here’s what Dappled Things say about the content they seek for the periodical.

“People fascinate us; sin bores us. Beauty amazes us; surface concerns leave us cold. Experience intoxicates us; world-weariness makes us yawn.”

That appealed to my sense of loftiness. Of aiming high. So that’s what I did — with the story and with the submission.

Were you, a Mennonite, concerned by the fact that the publication and the J.F. Powers contest are sponsored by an organization that is “Wholeheartedly Catholic?” Did this fact change your approach to the story?

Not concerned, as much as intrigued. In my experience in South Eastern Manitoba where disparate small towns dot the farmland, there are many predominantly Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, and Ukrainian places. Despite coming from distinctly homogenous communities, each with its own dominant religion, people somehow always end up mingling. Whether it is through work, play, school or — inevitably — romance, intersections are created and blending results. Not right away, but over time. I saw this many times in my own family and beyond.

In this way, my story about a mixed Catholic and Mennonite family with a close sibling relationship between two of the children seemed to be a natural fit for the ethos of Dappled Things and the J.F. Powers Prize.

Did it change my approach? No. In fact, the merging of two, I would say, strong faiths, plus the fact that the early “Mennists” grew out of the Catholic religion makes the religious undercurrent in the story a strengthening factor and one that adds an interesting complexity.

Does religion play a major role in your story?

No. Religion is there, the same way the Manitoba prairie is there, to offer context and grounding. In fact, I can’t see how the story could have “got out of its own way” if religion would have been the central theme. I wanted the characters’ inner humanity and the always present tension between our selfish desires and our innate generosity and compassion towards others to be the core conflict. Describing where that generosity comes from is not part of my authorial responsibility. I’m just there to tell a clear story and let the reader find in it what they may.

So… you have a chance?

Nah. Like a platter of Niejoahsch’kuake1 in the church basement on Christmas Eve, I will be long gone after the first wave. The writers in this prize are the Iowa Writers’ Workshop types, The Paris Review essayists, the ones who put the “Masters” in MFA.

And yet?

Yes, and yet if I read my story, I know there is always hope.

1 New Year fritters. Deep-fried, dusted with icing sugar, sinfully good.

Interview: Brian Hughes

Brian (white shirt, 3rd from R) with the Write Clicks, August 2021.

One of the true pleasures of being an everyday struggling writer—emerging, submerging, and maybe even re-emerging—is meeting others who are in the battle with you.

One such person is Brian Hughes of Winnipeg. I first encountered Brian during one of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild open mic critique sessions. I liked his stories and his slightly offbeat delivery, which I thought added a lot. (Hint: Faulkner is in the house!)

Brian and I ended up in the same writing group, the “Write Clicks,” with members from Winnipeg (some alumni from Carolyn Gray’s WPL Critique group) and Lac du Bonnet, with ex-pats from Donna Besel’s former group. I enjoy his readings and his succinct critiques.

Here’s the interview:

How, when, and why did you start writing?

I stole a typewriter out of a garage at a vacant house when I was twelve and I mark the start of my moral descent from there. The stories from that time have a certain naively tentative eroticism and an undercurrent of self-pity. I never showed them to anyone. When I was fifteen and a little drunk I declared that I wanted to be a seminal genius. I was mocked unmercifully for that and I’ve been hesitant to proclaim my ambitions ever since. I started writing stories with a view to public consumption when I was in my early twenties. There are stories from that time that I’m not ashamed of now.

Can you speak both broadly and specifically about influences?

I was passionate about movies and novels from early on. I read 1984 and tried to read Joyce’s Ulysses at thirteen and read Lolita at fifteen. I would take a novelist I found resonant and try to read all their works, including Nabokov, Joyce Cary, V.S. Naipaul, L.P. Hartley, Margaret Laurence and Joseph Conrad.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories recently. William Maxwell, William Trevor, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett and others.

Cinema 3 in Winnipeg showed a lot of new wave movies, in my teens I was addicted to them. Nous Doux, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alfie, Satyricon, 8 1/2, and The Go-Between all stand out in my memory.

Lately, I’m becoming addicted to Netflix. I find the works of the Coen brothers and Vince Gilligan really resonates and their storytelling techniques seem to keep showing up in my writing.

What drives you to write?

One of my favourite quotes is from The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown – “Do you have a hole in your self-esteem that can only be filled with applause?” – that is part of it and also striving for importance and immortality; to have built a platform that others will stand on to build theirs.

In what other ways do you create?

I studied drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture. I still try to keep my hand in it.

I’ve taken to building furniture. I’ve always had a strong desire to be self-reliant and I like to take a tree, mill the wood and build a table.

What kinds of writing do you focus on and why?

I seek resonance more than anything else. It can’t be defined but I know when it’s there.

What artistic challenges do you face?

Other people, which is to be expected if you think that others should come to you instead of you reaching out to them. It’s like Greek tragedy; hubris leads to downfall. Ultimately it is my own delusions that I fight with.

Brian Hughes was born in South Africa and came to Canada with his family as a young child. He has lived in Manitoba ever since.

Thinking About Infinity

Big Zeus of a wind. Surface-frozen skim of slush on top of the ice, bright sun. Blue and blue and blue. Hauling ass at 40Kph with my iffy knee suggesting discretion on the port tack and my young blood–so it claims, drunk on endorphins or some other pop science–saying, “screw that!”

I am of the privileged few.

Plus, summer’s coming. A whole new set of physical laws. Wet, bumpy, sticky until you’re planing and the foil lifts you clear of the surface and the volume goes to mute and ravens tumble from above in comical one-upping nose dives.

In my black wetsuit, I must look like an extremely odd, hideous relative. Flightless, except for the clumsy board and sail. Enormous. No feathers and only a dusting of white hair. White, not black. WTF? I’d mock me too, if I was a master flier and fearless freep with a sharp, pointy beak.

Thinking about infinity in a place where it’s always windy.

The Morning After Nothing

Image: Cover, “Strange Weather” Becky Hagenston Press 53

Most mornings… in fact, most mornings as long as I can remember, I wake up happy. It’s a trait I would not trade. I am a cheerful morning person with a positive outlook. However, I must admit that some mornings are more of a poutlook. Soo gohne daut; so goes it.

Pouty mornings I sometimes call, “The Morning After Nothing.” A kind of bitter hollowness, apropos of nothing, with nothing left to lose, and nothing is more true than that you still have to get up and make the bed and get going. There is no cancel button for this illness.

“Cancel” starts with a C. What else starts with C are the things that conquer the dog-breath stench of waking up on a Morning After Nothing: coffee, chickadees, and creativity. My go-to fixes, respectively: Medium C, Little Cs, and Big C.

Coffee and the antics of our neighbour chickadee pals are self-explanatory cheer-bringers. Creativity is the third great remedy because it takes you away from the grumbly place and puts you far on the other side of Nothing. This last C takes you straight to Elsewhere: rapping at a keyboard, pushing wood through a saw, trying to learn a new move on the windsurfer. Painting something for a friend or for one of our pog grandkids. (That’s my wife Janice’s usual way out.)

“Dee-dee-dee!”

Today, I found the coffee less than stimulating and the chickadees were their usual acrobatic and fearless 15-gram selves but I still had the look of the guy at the back of the longest line at the grocery store… the guy with the dripping container of ice cream.

But, C-ing is believing, as the saying goes, so I moved on to Creativity: “C’mon Creativity, papa needs a new toque!” I wound up considering a difficult short story I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s an outside-your-comfort-zone story, with nary a Mennonite in sight. The story is dark and harsh, and carries a gut-shot of implicit violence. Well, if you’re gonna write about toxic masculinity, I guess you gotta break a couple of… Uhh, scratch that—sounds too glib, and not a little.

Cal Rhinehart. Big and mean. Damaged goods and all about the booze and the dope. Everyone else’s fault but his. Maybe his dad beat the shit out of him or maybe one fight too many or maybe he just had bad chemicals in his head; got dealt a rotten hand, Fiona thought, sad and furious and terrified all at once. Maybe understanding too well. Maybe even feeling a sort of mongrel kinship. But she shook that thought away. Positive thinking, Doctor Tracewski always says.

—Main Character, Fiona Hewel, in “Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

This is the story that started up in my head after reading an incredible story by the super-pog Becky Hagenston, “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow.” I was determined to jump outside of my skin—that old, wrinkly bag of derma—and take on the many risks attendant for an older man who writes a story that contains difficult passages; violence both emotional and physical and violence against both men and women.

Violence is real. Violence towards women happens. Violence is at the heart of the topic I wanted to broach, and yet, how could I, “go there?”

Would it be best to just bail-out? Let someone else handle this topic? Did you just shout, “Hell yeah?” I understand, and yet, I have an indelible memory; something that happened to me, in real life, in the real world on the #1 Highway just west of the Bow Flats, at the feet of Big Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Sister.

“What in the world? Look at that!” Joe said, straightening his back and shifting his attention to the road ahead. A red SUV accelerated along the merge lane of an intersection. Behind the speeding car, a tattooed, bareback man ran in a dead sprint.

“Is he chasing them?” Fiona said.

Tall and broad shouldered, the man had an athletic build and long dirty blonde hair. The white drawstrings of his grey sweatpants fluttered and snapped behind him like kite tails as he ran after the vehicle. His bare feet pounded on the gravel strewn pavement.

The bizarre drama played on and Joe slowed the car as they closed on it. A white, flatdeck truck, “Rhinehart Well Drilling” in bold letters along the side, sat parked at a cockeyed angle near the intersection—driver door open, blinker on.

The running man slowed and hopped a few strides on one leg, then staggered to a lame halt. He bent at the waist to inspect his foot. The SUV sped away on the highway.

—”Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

As you can see, I choose to go ahead with the story. The early iterations were the cause of some “Morning after Nothing” feels, but “vann aul, dann aul,” as is said in the Plaut: “if already, then already,” or “if you’re going to do it, go all the way!”

So I did.

Ugh. The result was more than one editor, I fear, not seeing the Red Badge of Courage in my choices, but instead feeling triggered and put upon. More than one editor who might have stroked me off a list or two. For good, or longer.

Still, this the way of it, is it not? If there’s no risk, then I will stay forever in the safe-feeling place—potentially a moribund state for my writing—where I just write happy, little stories about wise Mennonites. Where grey-bearded Opas nod knowingly and open their mouths to release a dazzling, atmospheric river of axiomatic truths and cornpone savviness. Savvy like, “vann aul, dann aul.”

But… many rewrites and tough critiques later, I feel as though the story has evolved and now comes closer to the way I want it. Consider: I am a male writer, someone who grew up in times and places where even the worst acts of wanton male violence were sometimes forgiven—forgiven (or given up) even by those who suffered the violence. Forgiven by those whose job is was to police this violence: pulpit, patrol car, politician. I lived this condition, directly and indirectly. Is that not a story worth considering? Is it not important to write from a point of view that—without absolution and without friendly framing—tells a human story in all of its unsettling truth?

I vote yes.

There’s a part near the end of “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” where the author describes something being thrown into a dumpster, “with a thud,” and your heart sinks, and you feel a bit sick to your stomach. Without that passage the story is still wonderfully strong, but when you read it… when you read, “with a thud,” you are moved in a way that will last.

That! That result is the big prize, the one worth taking some risks to attain. It’s how a story can make a difference. It’s certainly one way to beat the Morning After Nothing blues!

Besides, as some wily Mennonite Oma must have said, to some future author on some far shore: “the best way to catch fish is to keep fishing!”

So I will.

Jus’ Noodlin’

Image: My grandparents and my uncle Ken in Steinbach, MB during the 40s; Mennonites hiding in plain sight.

As I idle down the back lanes of my brain’s daydream centre, procrastinating before my session on the rowing machine, I imagine what the logline might look like for a collection of my short stories. Note that I’m idling along the back lanes—where windmills and cobwebs exist in perfect harmony—on a brand-new, electric Ural sidecar motorcycle. Hey… if you’re gonna daydream, go carbon-friendly or go home!

Mitchell Toews’ collection of insightful short stories, “Pinching Zwieback – Prairie Stories,” reveals the confines of small-town life in a Mennonite community. Vivid characters demand to be heard and recognized. The book’s mixture of the iconoclastic and the nostalgic delivers reality through the little-seen lens of an outsider—but one with a deep insider pedigree. Toews’ heartfelt expression of lives lived captures the conflict and the contradictions that are unavoidable in these insular Jemeend*.

Pulling apart the clockwork of the axiomatic Mennonite profile, Toews probes for what is common to all and what is beautiful and what is problematic within faith, culture, domestic life, commerce, and interaction with the wide world beyond.

“Out of patience, I stood up and began angrily shouting down the ridiculous, muddled stereotypes coming from the lecturer in my ‘Introduction to Geography’ course. I was at the University of Victoria in 1974 and we were discussing Canadian Mennonites. At almost the same time a tall, blonde woman from the Interior rose to protest, and also another; a young Albertan from La Crete who was on the men’s J-V basketball team. All of us disavowed the reckless, almost comical blending of Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite tropes. At that moment, I saw myself and my ‘brethren’ in the way others must and furthermore, I saw the confusion within our own ranks.”

Mitchell Toews

__

*Or Gemeinde: Communities or congregations

Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.

The title of this essay is the actual name of a research and analysis paper written by Anita F. Dodson and Judith H. Hauser. The paper was sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the publication was released in 1981.

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED211411

I discovered this document online when searching for resources about the improvements made in modern literature in respect of ageism, embedded bias, and systemic elder malignment. Like you, perhaps, I assumed that progress has been made in this area; that certain antiquated and demeaning stereotypes had been scrubbed out of literature by a watchful literary vanguard of editors, publishers, librarians, teachers, readers and right-minded people in general.

“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”

I believed, like American industrialist Charles F. Kettering must have (quoted above), that age bias is the product of an illogical mind and that it would, especially in today’s atmosphere of rapid, broad communication and ultra-scrutiny be all but eradicated. While discrimination over race, religion, gender, or sexuality continues to plague society, open hate-speak and flagrant animosity have been essentially banned in world literature. The same should be true for ageism, yes?

Well… “Hey, BOOMER!” No.

Here are the some of the findings of the Dodson/Hauser paper. Their research included visits to, “public, college, and school libraries, as well as bookstores. Approximately eight hundred books from the kindergarten through adult levels were investigated.” The authors reason that what readers absorb through reading—particularly the young—will influence their opinions and beliefs. How true.

In summary, the authors concluded the following:

[…] “analysis of past and present literature shows that the aged have been stereotyped and portrayed negatively. By not assigning them a full range of human behaviours, emotions, and roles, authors have categorized them, resulting in ‘ageism’—discrimination against the elderly.

Literature conveys writers’ and society’s stereotypic and negative images when:

  1. Authors consistently use adjectives such as “old,” “poor,” “little,” “sad,” and “wise” to refer to the elderly.
  2. Older men are depicted with wrinkles, white hair, and canes, while older women are portrayed as fat or skinny, with their hair in “buns” and wearing aprons.
  3. Senility is considered to be synonomous with old age.
  4. The aged are pictured as sitting in rocking chairs or engaged in passive roles, such as storytelling, fishing, or housekeeping.
  5. Personality is characterized in two forms—crotchety or unfailingly pleasant.

1-5, above, are the faults present in a certain cross-section of American literature at the time the study was done forty years ago.

The authors identified important categories as a way to break down and better analyze a piece of literature in respect of its treatment of elders.

  • Significance. In Canada today, StatsCan estimates, “Almost one in five (18.5%) Canadians are now aged 65 and older, and the number of centenarians rose 1,100 year over year to 12,822 as of July 1, 2021.” https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210929/dq210929d-eng.htm Simply put, are one in five contemporary literary characters age 65 or older? What systemic initiatives (funding, grants, contests, mandates, education) exist to promote the significance of elders in modern literature?
  • Ethnic and Racial Composition. The study contends that, in 1981,

“When older characters appear in literature, the vast majority are white. Ethnic and racial minorities tend to be stereotyped to an even greater degree, assuming roles that are even more typecast than whites. While some behaviors are not inaccurate, they are shown in exclusion to others. For example, Asian-Americans operate laundries or gift shops or participate in dragon festivals, while Blacks appear in servile roles.”

  • Character Role. To what degree are elders depicted as main characters?
  • Occupational Role. Are elders, “shown in a diversity of meaningful occupations and employment settings?” The study found that:

The majority of older characters are placed in indeterminate occupational roles or those that require only passive participation… When there is obvious employment, the positions require little mental acuity or are outside the experiences of the average student. Women’s roles are repetitive… generally engaged in housework or gardening.

  • Behavioral Characteristics. Elder characters found by the 1981 study usually created problems Today, are they depicted solving problems too? Are behavioural characteristics stereotypical? A somewhat recent example is Canada’s “Corner Gas” television show. The ensemble cast includes two prominent elder roles, a husband and wife. The show often elevates the female elder to a person of agency, responsibility, strong character and otherwise gives her a role equal to younger characters, although she seems to me too often petulant and vengeful and her role in the home and the community are based on typecast models. Her husband is a comical dumping ground of grouchy old man tropes, spun out relentlessly, episode after episode, giving authority for other writers to continue down the caricature trail, unabated; angry old white man… Difficult old lady.
  • Physical Traits. In 1981, “Older characters are rarely given fully developed physical descriptions. Instead, they are described by three adjectives–“old,” “little,” and “ancient.” “Old” is used approximately seventy-five percent of the time. No other generation is completely described by the use of one word.”
  • Personality Traits. Do older characters express, “a full range of emotions with the opportunity for continued growth?”

~ ~ ~

The sample size is small. It’s a review of predominantly American literature and may not be representative of the Canadian reality—then or now—particularly in respect of Indigenous characters, for which significant differences exist between American and Canadian cohorts. (Example: Métis peoples are seldom represented in American culture or literature.)

Despite these shortfalls and potential inaccuracies, when I read the findings and conclusions, I can’t help but see a description of many parts of modern day Canadian literary content. Few elder characters are drawn in the same way as their younger counterparts and many suffer from the same endemic flaws as those highlighted in 1981.

What, if anything, has changed? Is this unalterable? Will literary and genre fiction remain forever bound by and within these “old” tropes and lazy caricatures?

A few nights ago, the doddering, heavily made-up character portrayed by “Saturday Night Live’s” Mikey Day, fell headlong and without reserve into almost every insulting, belittling device cited by Dodson & Hauser. When in doubt, slander the elderly and grab a cheap laugh! This recent example from one of the big-audience icons of Western pop culture suggests that elder discrimination is still openly permitted. The zeitgeist has spoken.

~ ~ ~

On the plus side, and I’m sure there are many, I was impressed with Ralph Benmergui, author of

I THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR

during his CBC radio interview from Winnipeg yesterday. Author-broadcaster-spiritualist (and likely much more), Mr. Benmergui is, like me, a 1955 product and I thought his take on elder invisibility was a direct hit. BOOM! He later added a positive tone to his comments, pointing out many of the things that have changed and are changing concerning the role of seniors in Canadian society. I’m sure his book will contribute to the dialogue.

His is another book for me to buy and it may find a place on the shelf right next to Sharon Butala, and her wonderful book of essays,

THIS STRANGE VISIBLE AIR: ESSAYS ON AGING AND THE WRITING LIFE

~ ~ ~

Please accept my apologies for being on a bit of a birthday-induced rant about all of this, but as Kettering pointed out, it is in our best interests—and that of generations to come—to grapple with issues of ageism now and with permanence.

Jessica Lake IMPRESSIONISM

I’m working a lot lately on creating stories that follow my understanding of an “impressionistic writing style.”

Impressionism as manifest in Scene; Character; Action; Sensation; and Style.

This is, you see, part of the Jessica Lake MFA I’m enrolled in. The internet and my writing group, the reading I do, my readers and editors are the instructors. I am definitely the coolest guy in my MFA. In fact, I’m the only guy in my MFA, but then, I always avoid giving statistics too much credence.

The overriding rules go a little like a Lightnin’ Hopkins song — there’s some improvisation involved as you go along:

  1. Writen in the present, without reflection or authorial comment
  2. No narrative intrusions of any kind — the story simply unfolds in the reader’s mind
  3. Choice of words is left to “Mot juste” or a sense of using just the “right” word that contributes to the totality of the piece without undue attention to the beauty of the prose.

Scene — a reportorial flow, objective, use of understatement and simple words, clear imagery, repetition and reiteration of key words and phrases, strong description of action, use of landscape to echo emotion… the last bit suggested by author and writing instructor Lauren Carter of Winnipeg.

Character — describe traits or activities, but not physical attributes

Action — up close and participatory with reader as onlooker, cinematic: rapid (fluttering) or slow motion and may utilize a bird’s-eye view from above that is clipped and declarative

Sensation — actions are felt by the reader, be concrete and crude, be simple and realistic, work the senses

Style — author should express their individuality as a writer (untarnished), focus always on the subject and what the subject experiences, use the iceberg technique to hide the worst and only show the surface — the tip — of what is wrong, and ala Hemingway and Manitoba memoirist Donna Besel, write slow and clear about the most terrible and the most hurtful.

Note: A good deal of this came from a doctoral thesis (from a few decades ago) I found on the web and now cannot relocate to cite. Acch. Quite a bit is of my own invention so… maybe the no citation is okay here. If you recognize it, lemme know!