What Leda Knows

This thought has been irritating me, like a pebble in my shoe — a squarish pebble lodged where it cannot be reached. It has bothered me all day and the only way to get rid of it is to jot this down. Barefoot, maybe. Toes wiggling.

Whether it is Irish writing or Jewish writing or Indigenous writing… or even if it is Mennonite writing, I think the full complement needs to be part of the accounting. All constituents must be consulted to speak their unquiet peace. Not only the praise-makers, the honouring, the apologists, the happy-talkers, and the yammering wholly satisfied but most importantly perhaps, all of the others.

All the others.

Who would best know the naked truths and speak freely about what they know? Do the rich paint their discontent on the subway walls? How many fat cats walk a beat on city streets, risking rubber bullets or worse? No, They cause resentment, they don’t suffer from it.

Go ask these: The fallen. The betrayed and the shunned. The aggrieved. The marginalized, the disavowed, the once-close — now distant. The ambivalent who hang suspended still from the ties that bind, but who would cut them if need be… if they had no other choice.

In W.B. Yeats’s dark masterpiece, Leda and the Swan, we are told that Leda could feel the swan’s strange heart beating, “where it lies,” as if it was somehow disembodied, no longer a part of the bestial being.

Does this mean that to capture the truth, we don’t go to the apparent source? Go rather to those who offered up a sacrifice and received aggression in return. Or something sadly “indifferent” as the poet suggests.

The presence of indifference might reveal more than all the rest combined.

 

 

The Sacrifice Fly

If you play enough baseball, you get to a point where you can produce certain outcomes with regularity. This is most true in fielding where extraordinary plays become almost routine. Predictable outcomes are less common in pitching and batting.

At the plate, it’s often the role of the batter to hit a flyball far enough into the outfield to score the runner from third base. The pitcher knows it and throws high riseballs and drops to keep the hitter on the ground or pop her up. But a decent player can often deliver that lazy SAC fly.

I think this is true across a broad spectrum. An average sales professional can renew a long-time account… a basketball player can hit the open J… a practiced politician can deflect uncomfortable questions and provide a safe non-answer without mussing her hair.

However, artists who reach the safety zone are drawn to go beyond. Dylan went electric… Vincent rendered his 200th (500th?) sunflower and looked to the heavens for a new challenge… “Finnegan’s Wake” came out and slapped a lot of people in the face. Art, to reach its potential, needs—at some point—to venture out into uncharted territory and put the artist at risk. “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” as a small Canadian actor with good hair, dimples and a cute little paunch used to say in the opening voice-over, weekdays at 5:00 p.m. in our house on Sunrise Bay.

One of my artistic heroes, Winslow Homer, wrote that one must “experiment boldly.” I agree and even though I still need to hone basic skills (a lot) I feel it’s also time for me to leave my own friendly confines and be bold.

Trouble is, unlike the master, I am not endowed with a limitless amount of talent and a universally loved body of work. But no matter, the feeling of being alone, friendless and at risk is, like landing head-oeuvre-heels in the deep-end… “good for ya!”

Lately, I’ve been on this bold mission. I’ve let myself be led by my Writing Circle and by the greats who went before. Becky Hagenston, Flannery O’Connor, and even Jean Luc Picard—my doppelganger with a Shakespearean accent. (My accent is more East Reserve, with a side order of Simon Biester coarse Mennonite brogue.)

Image result for brogue shoe

Over the last few days, I’ve gone down swinging a few times as I sought the fences. Reviewers and critiquers have sent me packing, without so much as a foul tip. They did give me tips, though—“Bet heavy—sleep on the streets” or messages of that ilk.

Yesterday, a small breakthrough. An acceptance for one of my Nina, Pinta, and hail Santa Marias. From a wonderful band of editors who know the stench of a book bonfire and are not afraid to toss ugly trash into it, but also take a dim view of too easily barbequing writers whose work takes the path less travelled. (They’re not wild about the above confusing potpourri of images, but, hey—this is just a blog, so edges may be rough.)

Speaking of rough edges, “I am a series of small victories,” comes to mind. This quote from Charles Bukowski, an experimenter if ever one there was. NO, I don’t defend his misogyny or off-handed violence, alcoholism, or other missteps and ignoble romps. I like a lot of what he wrote and respect his boundary-crossing as a part of his artistic journey.

Writers must stray. We must, “dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight,” from time to time. Must we not? Not to become a part of that world, but to know how to avoid falling into it.

Anyway, I’m excited to be doing what I’m doing and hope I can come out on the other side, better for the whippings I will take along the way.

allfornow,
Mitch

News on this story in May, when it is due to hit the internet.

“Penguin, if you’re out there—I hope you’re listening…”

A web beacon (or a pixel tag) is a small, invisible piece of text or image on a website that is used to monitor traffic on a website. In order to do this, various data about each site visitor is stored using web beacons.”

So what? Why should a writer care about this arcane bit of programmerease? Are the rules of grammar or the strength of one’s imagination not more important to a writer?

Of course. Except…

In the new world of Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publish vs. Indy Publishing, the most marketable skills may not be the inky variety so much as the slinky variety.

Let me ‘splain you: I live 90 minutes from the Winnipeg Floodway. My location is a bit remote, and in terms of population density, it ain’t Brooklyn. However, my Android phone has, in its logarithmic digital wisdom identified Bloodvein First Nation as my nearest population hub.

bloodvein

Hilarious. BFN is a small place. It’s far away. There are dozens of towns that are closer and larger, and yet, this is what Samsung gives me as my location. My point is not to cast shade on Bloodvein but to illustrate the level of technical advancement available to me as an average citizen. It’s pretty sad.

Sure, I can scrape a little basic data from Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress analytics, but it’s meagre at best.

Now go back up to the web beacon description in the lede. See the potential difference? A big-arse publishing house can hire brainy types who love math, puzzles, and Star Trek to pin-point all the Whos in all the Whovilles across the globe! They can ID the entire population of Romantic Space-Fantasy Adventure Horror aficionados to within a pixel point of accuracy, plus or minus one redhead.

Me? I could spend most of the Toews fortune* on marketing and end up with a garage full of UNSOLD, shabbily printed grit-lit, collecting dust and angst.

*Such as it is, we are mostly invested in books, windsurfing equipment, and sewing machines & sewing machine accessories…

And it need not mean that dust-gathering library of Prose by Toews is second-rate—that is not my point. (In fact, I’m hoping you’ll take the opposite inference here.) The point is that FEW in the grit-lit-identity-seeking-Menno-odd-syntax-unusual-language-and-extremely-long-hyphenated-word cohort of worldwide readers will know that my awesome book even exists. The Whos in Whoville will remain drearily unaware. Toewsproseless.

So, it is by definition, existential. Dude. If I want to exist as a published writer, I must not only write good, gooder, goodest—but I have to shout it from the digital mountaintops too. Or aim to be the best-selling author in Bloodvein? (That may be tougher than I think…)

Here’s an interesting related post by Poet-Author Elizabeth Estochen:

https://www.estocheneditorial.com/post/publishing-journey

A Mennonite Imposter’s Discursive Rhapsody

Three Problems with Christianity: Souldierism, Heaven, and Receipts. (And possibly some of the reasons why the author maunders along in so many stories, searching out weak actors like a Red Rock Bible Camp Councillor hunting for Playboys between the mattresses.)

Problem One: Onward Christian “Soul-diers”

  • Mennonite religion (voted *Best Guilt* at Reformerpalooza) is obsessively and unabashedly built upon an army mentality.
  • Follow orders or else. It’s just that simple.
  • Those who ask questions based on some external code or sense of moral dissatisfaction are often eliminated. Shunned, excommunicated, kicked out, shit-canned… The church is governed by court-martial law, coercively presided and prosecuted by high-ranking church officials who are put in place by you-know-who (Die Owlah! An unimpeachable authority.) Just like the armed services, to disobey is to risk extreme penalties and disgrace.

So why is an organization dedicated to peace governed by the same laws, ordinances, and traditions that are used by the world’s militaries; the same rules that were in place for the fearsome armies of the Old Testament?

  • Also like the military, most Christian conventions change, but they are grindingly slow to do so. Examples of past changes I’ve seen in my own adult lifetime: Divorce (with the caveat that it is still far rougher on women then it is for men), Tight Jeans, and Rock n’ Roll. No? Just take a look around at church this Sunday, is there not at least one divorced person in your pew? Are you and others not wearing jeans that would have drawn a hair-afire rebuke in 1970? That musical menagerie: drum kit, synthesizer, and stable full of guitars up on the (ahem) stage is at the ready and is not out of place, in fact, they are the instruments of salvation and worship.

“Last one in the mosh pit is a demon!” 

  • And yet the church, just like the military, battle on in their efforts to resist LGBTQ (see below), to sustain their sadly obvious misogynistic roots, and to disavow the nativism that the church’s unholy co-combatants—far-right conservative politicians—seek to uphold.
  • In 2012, Steinbach, Manitoba’s Southland Church led opposition to a provincial law that sought to provide protection for LGBTQ students suffering from bullying. The church took the position that the Bill would promote “wrong lifestyle choices.” A petite-but-confident and charismatic high school student (not yet voting age at the time) serenely and handily took on the Steinbach Town Council, several adult congregants, a group of not-so-petite (but plenty-surly) adult members of the local ministerial association who carried NOT ON MY WATCH! placards. This latter crew had to be gavelled into silence and was threatened with expulsion from council chambers. Despite being less disruptive than the placardists, a phalanx of spear-wielding ancient Roman soldiers was prevented from entering the chambers.
    • “We want them to change it (the Bill) to say independent faith-based schools do not have to have groups that are in conflict with their beliefs,” Coun. Susan Penner told CBC News on Thursday. —https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156 (The soldiers could be heard grunting and clacking their spears in noisy agreement outside of the meeting room.)
    • At Steinbach’s Southland Church, pastor Ray Duerksen told parishioners during a (“worship”) service on Feb. 24 that God will judge those who don’t oppose the anti-bullying bill.—https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156
  • My QUESTIONS for Coun. Penner and Pastor Duerksen include: “Is it still your watch? An elected or appointed position? Both, you say?” And, “At the point when the church and the town finally change their puny positions on LGBTQ issues, what REDRESS can be expected for your irresponsible and discriminatory actions in 2012? Will this redress be financial? A public apology? Resignation? Stoning?
  • I have no questions for the placard-waving chuckleheads or the Roman soldiers. (These two represent the same fertilizer; in different piles.)
  • It is my prediction that the petite young high school student who—armed with only five smooth stones—stood up to colossal hatred in 2012. I believe she will one day be a legislator who will debate on a level battlefield. I expect she will defeat the doctrine-wielding and the spear-wielding, alike. I suspect her “watch” will be empathetic and egalitarian.

Problem Two: Heaven

  • You rent a house. The owner stresses that you—the renter—have full dominion over that house. It’s yours to use as you please. It’s almost as though the landlord told you, “I got awesome insurance so party on, DUDE!” Additionally, you rent this house knowing that you will be moving to a castle at some point in the future. You’ve taken all the necessary steps to assure your admittance to the castle. It’s a done deal.
  • My prediction, based on close personal contact with numerous rat bastards and almost as many sweet soulful brethren is that the renter is not gonna put a lot of leasehold improvements into that rental house. The renter is not gonna worry about a drywall dent here, or a busted tile there, or a swimming pool filled with empty Tim Horton cups. (Or rusted out Chevy Blazers, dirty syringes or radioactive waste, for that matter. It ain’t the renter’s problem.)
  • The renter’s carefree attitude is in high contrast when compared to their landlord-less heathen neighbours who own their abode and who intend to hand it down to their descendants… Those dumb suckers are tasked with the constant upkeep and care of their place, unlike the renter. Renters have the same rights to live in their home as the homeowners but, ‘cuz of the whole “I’m gonna move into a golden castle in the sky” thing, renters don’t really give a Norwegian rat turd about upkeep, cleanliness, sustainability or any other word ending in pollution or climate change or extinction or any words that are not “dominion over”.

Heaven appears to be an effective disincentive to take care of the earth. “DON’T BE GENTLE—IT’S A RENTAL!”

Problem Three: Receipts

Here’s a modern parable:

You run down to Anabaptist Appliances and buy a toaster. It’s fine, until one day you don’t smell burning toast. Hot under the collar, you hustle back to the store and ask to trade-in or return the toaster or to be given warranteed compensation.

“Sure, Mister Ishmael. Do you happen to have a copy of your receipt? I’m gonna need a scriptural confirmation to verify that everything you are telling me is gospel. Know what I’m sayin’?”

“Of course. But, can’t you just take my word? Have you no, uh, faith?”

“Oh bah jo! I believe everything you’ve told me—the trilogy: alternating|direct|ground… the death of the thermostat and its resurrection via the reset button… the four horsemen of the power surge… It’s just that my boss is a stickler and I really need a  proof of purchase.”

He seems insistent, this clerk. Now, you KNOW you bought the toaster—full retail price—at Anabaptist Appliances and you never abused it or changed anything or went outside of the commandments of the operator’s manual so even though you don’t have actual written proof, you say, “Look, bro. I don’t have the receipt, but my buddy James, on King Street, he can vouch for me. Will that do?”

“Sure. As long as it’s in print, on ancient, rotting scrolls, in an appropriate language not spoken on earth in centuries, and concerns only the toaster model later built in the precise triangular region delineated by i.) the old blood-letting clinic (Abe’s Arteries) on Queen up to ii.) Spadina and then back along Graffiti Alley to the location of iii.) the common pasture … we’ll accept that as gospel!”

“Sure, partner. Sounds like we have a deal. Is it okay if the written proof from James on King is filled with ambiguities about when and exactly how to prepare and eat toast, how a toaster should properly be prepared for sacrifice, the selling of a toaster into slavery, the rules governing the crucifixion of a  toaster, and the throwing of plugged-in toasters into the bathtubs of Hittite neighbours?”

“Hittites, eh? They’re the worst. It can even be co-authored by several hundred of James’s best buddies (just not too many women, eh?) and you can come on down and revise it any time you feel like it.”

  • The main trouble with the good book is that it is the product of WRITERS and EDITORS. Untrustworthy louts, by and large. And the genre—is it literary fiction, is it reportage, is it non-fiction, is it science-fiction, is it fantasy, is it non-fiction? Astrological science?  History text-book or historical fiction? Maybe foodie lit? (What Whales Love to Eat: Old Guys with Long Beards… Superbowl Munchies? How to Feed a Crowd with Just Bread and Fish.)
  • Lots of authors. Lots of (Holy) ghostwriters. Distributors and agents gettin’ their Gideon on too and disenfranchising the Midianite Book Club. It’s quite the anthology!

The Bible is kinda like the Leity high rollers (from a long time ago) assuring all us lunchpail Leity types that a Deity won the big hand except the Deity does not want to show His cards. He wants us to take it on His word that He filled His holy straight. He understands our mortal doubts though, and instructs us to have faith. He gives His Leity pals a few tools to help with the convincing; some insider info to prove what He claims. The suite may be Clubs. (But it could be Diamonds.) He may have drawn the Ten or it may have been a pat hand. Sure, His betting pattern doesn’t support it, but… if you don’t believe the Allmighty, you just might be banished to the basement—with his relative, Diablo, who sells life insurance—for the rest of eternity, so… it’s up to you, but I know what I’d do.

~

Also, you cowboy philosophers and your John Prine mix-tapes (“Jesus Christ died for nuthin'” etc.) and your medical marijuana… you can just stop pointing out that whole, “Well, doesn’t the very presence of evil prove that an omnipotent God does not exist?” thing. The man with the long white robe and the gold throne is getting pretty tired of that whole logic spiel and if you don’t want those glaciers to start melting at TURBO speed, then—verily, I say unto you—just watch it!

Conclusion: Wherein the Author Wraps Up with a “Ha! Toro!” and a Swirl of His Fadadatj

“The Holy Fool”. Another parable, of sorts.

You know the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where supposedly only those with “a perfect sense of fashion” can actually see the King’s new duds. Those peasants without the chic fashion eye cannot even see the King’s new apparel. At least that’s what the King’s advisors tell the King and his court in order to keep their ruse alive. No one dares point out the folly—they all pretend to be able to see the clothes, including the King—and it goes on and on.

Until, a person in the court, a jester perhaps, the so-called “Holy Fool” steps up and says the obvious. “The King is naked.”

Gasps and outrage follow. Slowly, the truth seeps in and then with a surge, everyone is busy denying that they see anything and the truth wins out after much subterfuge.

I sometimes feel like this “Holy Fool”; one who has no investment in the bullshit, a person who is not a part of it—not even close—and who without anything more than average insight utters the obvious, uninfluenced by the need to fall in line.

I am that fool. I cannot be sanctioned because I live a life within, but apart.

A believer may say to me, with force and indignation, that because I am nothing but a Mennonite imposter—a secular Mennonite—that I cannot and do not speak for Mennonites.

And yet,

  • My G-G-GF was Delegate Toews, born in Fischau and sent with 11 brooda to find a new home.
  • My G-GF and G-GM Toews, John and Sarah—late of the Kleine Gemeinde—were shunned from the Holdeman camp—shoed away like a pair of impertinent crows picking at a roadside deer carcass before the eagles had their fill. John and Sarah took umbrage at their unfair ouster and sued the church. The lowly corvids sued the uppity raptors. That must have sent tail-feathers fluttering!

Interesting bonafides, wouldn’t you agree? Plus I grew up in Steinbach Bakery—the floury bullseye of Manitoba’s cultural Mennonite dartboard. Add to that my uncommonly good and well-loved community treasure GrandMother Toews, despite her German Baptist (non-Menno) baptismal certificate. Also, my full-fledged adult-dunked Menno wife and one dunked daughter. (So our little family is 50-50: two wet and two dry. )

http___www.hendersonnebraska.com_wp-content_uploads_2012_04_zwieback

And now, at the end of this trail of breadcrumbs, I find myself standing in the court—not at the bench John and Sarah Toews stood before at the turn of the last century, but the aforementioned King’s court.

Sure enough, the king is naked. In fact, he’s got a boil on his butt the size and texture of an overfilled jambuster and a belly that must be schmaundtfat cuz jelly don’t shake like that!

The dude is, as we used to say, nuck bak-ed!

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. I Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)

So, hear me when I say that I may be uniquely qualified to see it all—including the ignoble and the insincere and the hypocritical—with eagle eyes and a crow’s discernment. I am a slave to none. And with familiarity and empathy and kinship and knowledge of the waymarkers and the places to stumble and those places too, where Mennonites soar.

~

And if I’m a little bit annoying and more didactic than you’re prepared to accept from a everyday guy, an former class-clown, an ex-jock with a plentiful supply of demons and not near enough angels, well… too bad, because no one gave me this job, I just damn well took it.

“Poets are the unauthorized legislators of the universe.”—P. Shelley

What’s it all about, Alfie?

An outdated song-movie reference, but truly, what IS it all about?

Followers. Friends. Connections.

I have them, I value many… some not so much. I’ve made new friends via twitter and Facebook. It is a time-consumer, the internet is, that’s for sure but I’ll gladly put in the time if there is a pay-off.

And if the pay-off is simply getting to know a few more cool people on the planet? I’m in.

But…

What do the figures mean? What is helpful to a writer? What does an editor or a literary agent or a publisher really care about beyond the story?

Build your base, countless consultants with extremely white teeth and button-down collars proclaim.

I’d be glad to know about the Malcolm points that magically tip things in my favour and take my story from “promising” to “compelling” or from “not a good fit for us right now” to “we are goddamn-freaking-mind-blown to have you on board, you massive rock star in a blue plaid shirt!” Or words to that effect.

At the same time, I have my own disclaimers. I care about working with people who like me and whom I enjoy — I feel like I’ve earned that privilege and so my journey up & down the rocky, steep, and sometimes treacherous fiction trail is among friends and pleasant, fun people. Sure, they’re skilled and sharp and they gotta be smart. Hard-working and honest; of course, but they also must be just plain old nice. Share a deserted island with nice. Two-hole outhouse nice. (Okay — no one is that nice.)

Anyway, please tell me… what’s it all about?

Twitter = 4,484 followers @Mitchell_Toews (See my mapped follower results in the image above.)

Facebook = 234 friends https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews

LinkedIn = 785 connections https://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchtoews/

Goodreads = 7 followers and 165 friends https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18450919.Mitchell_Toews

Mitchellaneous.com blog = 148 subscribers https://mitchellaneous.com/

See Change

“Can a sixty-three-year-old aufjefollna Mennonite living next to a lake in the boreal be part of change in the worldwide artistic landscape?”

Sure. In a small way, why the Mitchell not?

I’m quite sure some of the change champions featured in this article would agree:

12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists

http://time.com/longform/art-leaders-next-generation/

I found this piece inspiring, even for a schnuddanäse like me.

I’m four years into a smashmouth experiment — my longtime dream to write fiction. To be published and to leave something good behind. To ask some interesting questions. All that stuff that sounds like a lot of fluff and horseshit, but is in fact, as tough it comes.

Chris Jackson

Publisher and editor in chief of One World, a Penguin Random House imprint

“But his goal is not to acquire any book by a writer from a marginalized background for diversity’s sake alone. ‘The idea that the imprint is committed to diversity is kind of absurd,’ Jackson says. ‘We want to reflect the world we live in.’ The imprint allows writers to tell subversive stories in an authentic way, without what he calls ‘white filtering,’ or couching stories in ways that feel comfortable or familiar to white readers.”

This is a helpful communication for me.

I am a grizzled old white guy, writing about real life in small towns, times bygone and present day, the northern forest, basketball and baseball, bruised knuckles, and Mennonite themes. While I personally have not benefitted directly from the near past’s traditional preponderance of white men in literary fiction, I undoubtedly benefitted in many ways in other parts of my life in Canadian and American society. I have a legacy of privilege. So, I don’t feel I can or should complain—at all—about other cohorts like minorities or women who, these days, might get a small advantage for not being a white guy.

Jackson’s clear call to, “…reflect the world we live in,” explains what has been a difficult and highly coded part of lit fic for me. I take this editor’s message to mean that I am not to be excluded, I just have to share. Proportionately, or even a little less, and accept the new status quo with some grace.

I believe I can do that, in fact, that’s just what I want to do. Thank you, Chris Jackson.

I also find clarity in his comment about “white filtering”. I know this too well. While I don’t “white filter”, per se, I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks know how to structure a story to appeal to conservatives, especially my Mennonite brethren. I also know how to pimp up a story to fit more liberal (my own true bearing) perspectives. Horses for courses, but not for literary honesty.

To engage in this posturing is specious at worst, unnecessary at best. My charge as an artist is to invest my work with honesty and courage, not to try to predict the audience reaction and pander my story. No filtering, of any colour or creed.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. We writers want to be liked. But, again, Mr. Jackson’s leadership is helpful to me. Maybe I’ll be liked as one of the new age of subversive Mennonite authors writing, “in an authentic way” and without parsing readers by pew, rank, and political or social geist.

* * *

I hope you enjoy the article, I sure as hell did!

 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites

There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.

Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…

As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.

Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.

meat pudding
The basic argument against the existence of Cultural Mennonites

“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.

The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.

My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.

I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.

Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?

imposter
The Mennonite Imposter

I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:

  • industry & commerce
  • finance
  • government
  • education

These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.

smoking jacket mennonites

One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.

Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.

These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.” 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.

doug ford

Hmmm.

In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.

Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.

As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.

~ ~ ~

Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:

“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection

Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls” 

Interview with a Mennonite Imposter

http://bit.ly/MennoTOEWSba

Writer interviews can be kinda boring. This is a little more in the Mennonite wiseguy range of the register, but still—you know—predictably boring. And great fun to do, especially with such an engaging set of questions! My thanks to Editor Erin Unger.

 

Shade

FAMILY TREES sometimes cast shade. Due to the unbending quality of light and the laws of nature, this shade falls where designated by physics, not preference. We can’t change history to suit our current disposition.

The above is the mental garden in which the following Facebook post took root:

https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews

Macdonald, Mennonites, and Métis: these things have been ricocheting around inside my bulbous, roomy-and-well-lit cranium lately. My daughter, a woman of letters considerable and the possessor of a mind much more well-tended and well-educated than her dad’s, did some research on the goings-on of 1870-1873, part of Sir John’s tenure.

It’s worth noting too that the grandchildren she has provided own a much less homogeneous ancestry than their maternal predecessors. Her rugrats are Menno-Ukrainian-Franco-Métis. This moves the issue out of the theoretical and right into Nanna & Gramps kitchen!

Her scholarly digging turned up some unsavory evidence about how Manitoba Métis were given “scrips” for land titles along many southern waterways in the then-new province. That was in 1870, before our Toews antecedent and his Molotschnan peacenik delegation rolled in and said, “Sure, we’ll take this stoney ground off your hands for frie, ommsonst.” As the research suggests (to some), the post-1870 gov of the day appeared slow-handed in making good on the scrips and many would-be Métis land-owners left for greener pastures, tired of waiting.

Historians also wonder whether the 1873 governments (Fed + Prov) had some prejudicial racial motivation; they were all out of Scots settlers from Ontario and if they didn’t act fast and populate the prairies, they stood to lose the territory to the avaricious Yanks. These industrious, white, tabular-headed Mennos, well-schooled in the way of farming floodplains and (as it turned out) compound interest, were juuuust the ticket! Exit Métis, enter Kleine Gemeinde.

The whole issue is complex and unsettling. What did the delegates weehte and when did they weehte daut?

* * *

This whole Mennonanigan got reinitiated, for me, when I read,

Canada’s First Scapegoat 

in The Walrus. An article that was preceded by “Old Macdonald”.

In Pursuit of One’s Own Identity

Know thyself. It’s not that easy.

Writer, know thyself.

LOL. Yeah, right.

This topic makes Dave from Leamington, Eek the Freek, Charcoal Charlie, and other trusted advisors roll their eyes. Boring. Still, it’s fertile soil and I plan to muck around in it a bit. Why not?

Here’s what one author wrote about this personal pursuit:

While we constantly hear of postcolonial writers—Salman Rushdie, for example, to name one of the most famous—I am part of a rarer, dying species: a pre-postcolonial writer. That’s because I was born and spent my teen years in part of one colonial Empire, in what was then (redacted to protect anonymity) and started my writing career in another part of a greater colonial empire: (redacted). Having outlived both of them qualifies me to make the claim to be “pre-postcolonial.” And since I have lived in the (redacted) since (redacted), that gives me a broad perspective that is reflected in my fiction.

Okay, not bad. A bit blah-blah-blah, but you know – writerly.

If I follow that format—and you give me a little latitude—I get this:

While we constantly hear of part-postcolonial writers—Miriam Toews, for example, to name one of the most famous—I am part of a rarer, dying species: a part-pre-postcolonial writer. That’s because I was born and spent my teen years in part of one colonial Empire, Steinbach, in what was previously The East Reserve in Manitoba, and started my writing career, years later, in another part of a greater colonial empire: Chilliwack, B.C. Having outlived one of them qualifies me to make the claim to be “part-pre-postcolonial.” And since I have lived in Canada from my birth in 1955, that gives me a sea-to-sea-to-sea perspective that is reflected in my fiction.

You diggin’ it? Me either. Too colonialcated. But it has some potential.

How about this introspective, Bukowskiesque gaze-and-mutter:

“Some writers grab the polish and remove the tarnish. For me, the tarnish is the thing. The unequivocal; the rough, crushed rock that packs tight and stays put.”

Sure that’s better, but ain’t it a little, “Oh, damn, I’m good! And so fresh.” Yeah. Thought so. I do try to drop the pretention, but like all Mennonites—even Mennonite Imposters, of which club I am the Boss—I’m pretty proud of my humility.

And then there’s the big question I am asked*: “What’s with all the assinine yappin’ on social media? And then you turn around and write these dark, hurtin’ stories about degenerate scum with theology degrees and such, interspersed with your, ‘Aren’t Mennonites quaint and whimsical, especially in 1964?’, stuff? Like, PICK A GENRE, DUDE!” 

* Not that anyone has actually ASKED me this, but IF THEY WOULD…

Anyway, “What’s with that schiet?” you ask? Good question. It’s mainly because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings on social media. I mean, it’s such a cowardly thing to do, right? Ignoble. The pinnacle of pipsqueakery. So, I like to kid around instead. Dad jokes, wordplay, quips, I’mjusfuckinwitcha stuff. You know?  At the same time, I DO mean to ruffle feathers in a lot of my writing. That is the point, sometimes.

I suppose I want to be class-clown AND also get a few “A” grades on essays, even though I like to mess around.

Here’s my last try at self-realization, for today:

If writing success is the tip of Everest, I am plodding my way there, wearing gummschooh three sizes too big and making my way over the wet, sucking clay of the Red River Valley towards the Himalayas.
.
You know the stuff, right? The sticky, grey, toxic compote around the basement walls of a house under construction. It reeks of radon, and of rotting alphalfa roots, and decaying ancestors. It makes each boot as heavy as a sack of nickels. Hope I don’t burst a stent!
.
Nonetheless, I like these boots I’m wearing even if they do come off every step or so. I enjoy the miserable terrain. I appreciate the path although I’d gladly take a less difficult shortcut—just for a change of pace—and I ❤️ the other travellers steeweling their way to higher ground along with me.

keep on trucking stewelling.png
Keep on steeweling.

 

allfornow,
Gummschooh Toews

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