I don’t enter too many contests. They almost all charge a fee, which is understandable. I am a cheap Menno—also understandable to those who have taken the pledge of frugality that is part of every Oma’s hand-me-down tool kit for survival in the wide welt.
A contest I have entered a few times is from Pulp Literature Press. It’s called the Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest. In 2019, I made the longlist. This year, my story was named the Editors’ Choice. A ground-rule double, which I will take with as much bat-flippin’ humility as my over-caffeinated morning-person self can muster. I’m damned pleased.
Furthermore, I felt as though this story was, in part, a product of my excellent Writing Circle in Wpg, led by Wpg Public Library Writer-in-Res, Carolyn Gray. It’s a talented group and I’ve learned a lot from our meetings.
PL is an exceptional lit mag… small press… group of editors and artists… and a judge with plenty of creds. It’s an exemplary part of the white-hot West Coast writing community; home to a blintering sky full of starry writers and poets. As a former BC resident (nine years in the WACK) I am proud of what Pulp Lit has done and is doing.
I read a lot of short stories. Not as many as a literary journal editor—the former editor of Crazyhorse (or maybe it was The Literary Review) estimated at one time that he had read 10,000! That’s a lot. Crazy many. Wilt-like.
Not counting my own stories—read and re-read on a seemingly endless cycle, editing or not—I read at least a story a day and usually two or three. This has reduced the amount of fiction I read in novel form. And, kind of contradictory to the novel result, I now read far more poetry than ever before. I don’t write (much) poetry, but I sure love reading a verklempt-provoking line, even if I don’t quite know WTF is going on, distracted as I am by the many swooshing sounds I hear over my freckled skull.
I no longer read newspapers, something I used to love—right up there with beer, bacon, and baseball. Now I get my newspaper calories from the internet. Columnists and pundits, wags and woebegonists.
A treat these last few years is to read the CNF and ramblings of my friends and those I would like to befriend. ML Driedger and Hoss Neufeld are among the former. (Two Snowbird Western writers who resemble Miss Kitty and Marshall Dillon. Or more so Marshall Dylan, when the gunsmoke clears.)
I also read many writers like me, whose lariats spin sometimes wild, sometimes lazy as we seek to lasso the moon. Some oh-bah-fine shorts I have read lately (or revisited, like Hwy 61) include:
“The Laughing Man”, Salinger. Find it online as easy as Bananafish pie.
“Bullet in the Brain”, Tobias Wolff. Also just a gecko-twitch away, via Google. (This month’s group read for the Wpg Public Library Writing Circle, led by W-I-R Carolyn Gray.)
“The Tree Planter”, Spencer Sekulin. On *Fiction on the Web* a UK joint edited by Sir Charlie Fish.
“Sparking Spot”, Ramona Jones Go to Ms. Jones FB page and track it down there.
All this is part of my latest (and one of my bestest) rock-strewn trails: “Travel widely, experiment boldly, love deeply… ” Words to live by from one of my painting heroes, Winslow Homer. I can handle the second and the third as well as any cheroot-chewin’ gunslinger who cares to draw down on me. The travel one too, with buts and caveats—I can go where I wanna go, do what I wanna do, so long as Swoop flies there for next to frickin’ nuthin’, or our grandkids are there/going to be there, or I win the lottery. (The less common kind of lottery for which you don’t have to buy tickets to win.)
But maybe I don’t need to travel as widely as ol’ WH would have me do… I live in the four seasons of nature surrounded not by people and parking lots and coffee spoons, but rather by small-but-tough animals, white-capped water, and a forest of cross-country skis and tall timber. The love of my redheaded life sits across the dining room table from me each day and inexplicably, loves me deeply with her big brown eyes.
So, I hope interesting, unusual, flaky people can drop by Jessica from time to time, so I can hack the Winslow directive to travel widely. We’ll “welcome widely!”
“On Main Street; once my street I just want to say They did things and do things they don’t do on Broadway”
I just read, and loved, Peter Ralph Friesen’s quietly profound new book, “Dad, God, And Me”.
This novel (in many ways) has awakened smeary recollections of my own Steinbach childhood. Unexpectedly, I see stark similarities in our two fathers, although that comment will generate a “Waut?” tidal surge among Steinbachers who knew them both. In my dad’s case, it was more of a generational hand-me-down; something he dispensed with a hip check and then moved on. Or thought he had.
Certainly, the two men had core differences but they both bore the enormous weight of Steinbach in general and Kleine Gemeinde Steinbach in particular. It was, to each man, a stony brook; an overbearing, immovable, and intolerant entity.
In my view, at least.
I see two stoic, driven men—one pious, mild, and somewhat pedantic, the other secular, red-faced, a “man of action”, sometimes to a fault. I also encountered a third shadow presence: Steinbach itself. Looming with Lordly characteristics; a sub-deity.
There’s no place like it…
Sandburg’s famed city of verse came to mind, also uninvited. The poet describes a place “stormy, husky, and brawling” as compared to my childhood home: Severe, bespectacled, and haughty. Both places feel male, both shod with shit-spackled gumshuh. Both broad-shouldered.
Chicago and Steinbach each have a primal gravitas, an undeniable presence that, like a high slap shot, leaves a mark—sometimes painful.
Adult Steinbach, that is. As kids, I remember our secret underground. Raucously—like the Free French—we chided the powerful, the self-important and the self-righteous behind their backs, schpotting in our hideouts: in the storage bins at “CT’s”, with a beer out at “the pits”, schmeatjing at the sinner’s rink and in the ballpark dug-out. Author Friesen confirms this too, recalling his and his poetic buddy Patrick Friesen’s days as noble infidels. (“Noble” is my word, not Ralph’s.) These two rebelled not with misbehaviour, exactly, but with logic and fearless debate, taking on “murderous literalism” and all those pitching a certainty built upon loose-ends and a fear of hell.
I also enjoyed the author’s many comments concerning his mother.
[…] “her eyes are soft with a deep and wordless sadness.”
I felt it was a discrete and worthy sub-text. I noted the juxtaposition of her frazzled ham-and-eggs-and-house-full-of-children existence versus the descriptions of all other women in the local vernacular: “Mrs. Peter F. Rempel, Mrs. Jake G. Koop,” etc. Real-life shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and that book’s submissive naming convention. Steinbach’s patronymics to the last degree—a practice that attempted through churchy formal-speak to erase a woman’s given name, always seemed to me, as a kid and still, to be evidence of Mennonites “jumping the shark.” Women might as well been forced to address men as, “Your Honour,” and curtsey.
Somehow, I can’t imagine my rebellious Mercury Cougar-driving mom, in 1968, to succumb. If she did, it would only have been with such an overflowing ladle-full of withering verbal irony that passing pick-up trucks would have been stuck in their Penner Tire tracks as they encountered her sticky sarcasm.
To her credit. I always speculated that my mom, despite her scandalous reputation, was secretly—perhaps guiltily—admired by some of those name-stripped Hausfraus—who regarded themselves as Madam Curie NOT “Mrs. Pierre Curie”.
Altogether, “Dad, God, And Me” is a well-written, thoughtful examination. Forensic, in ways, but never mean-spirited or overly disdainful. Those strong feelings are withheld, but they still add a salty sprinkle of complexity with their just-noticeable absence. It is written with clean text and a forthright style. There are seamless and fluent excursions into German both High and Plaut. The book is built on a firm foundation of self-examination: Candid, telling, and like the prose style, unadorned. I found it, once I adjusted to the cadence, flowing and beautiful.
Near the end, Author Friesen offers a red-hot ember of guilty truth and we are invited to share as he explores with honesty and integrity, as if he is splinta’ noaktijch… When he reveals himself so freely, we know we can believe in him and what he has told us.
P.S.–Alien revivalists do get a little sandpaper, and I was glad for that!
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Northern lights, drunken ranks of Chernobyl ephemera, waver pink and green high above the boreal shield. In November an odd wind blows sharp from the south, kicking skiffs of snow ahead of it. Nodding, heavy head. Insistent… pushing down on the ice all through the night as it rushes unflagging across the fetch, pouring north into the invisible low pressure hollow. The raspy-rough crust on the ice surface catches the gusts. Cat claw on a ball of yarn. Using this purchase the wind is brutish in its labour, heaving with heavy legs.
In the winter morning the young ice platooned along the windward lakeshore, only inches thick and still vulnerable, is the last line of defence. When the ice can’t—it just can’t—push the land out of the way, it buckles with a shotgun crack. The skirmish continues until the shoreline looks like a long line of pup tents…
Twelve. Twelve stories since November 9, 2019. Twelve times I have over-hauled, cannibalized or started from scratch. Twelve times I have verbed the nouns until I wrote
I did not craft these alone. Far from it. Besides editor James, who has a hand (sometimes a fist) in almost all of what I produce, I’ve enjoyed a lot of wise help lately. Newfound writer friends, old friends, cousins, heroes, journal editors, my Writing Circle leader and co-members are among these.
What a dimension these voices add! Voices in my head. Danke seea, voices. I see everything in one way. My way. Sure, my vision has changed over the years and I have the benefit of that changing viewpoint, but it’s still my hazy hazel eyes, my half-functioning, and not-tiny nose, my waxy elephantine ears, my salty, shrink-wrapped, suspiciously rosy memory banks. My taste, my tastelessness… my sense of touch and some would say—a Boomer’s loss-of-touch, an old white guy from a small town, a needling, nerjing, argumentative prick who’s more than happy to express an opinion au contraire mon ami.
Anyway, I’m not so much proud of my productivity as I am stunned. (Aside: A master humble-brag, right there, if I do say so myself, and of course—I’d never do that…) What brought on this flurry? Where are the origins of this Alberta Clipper that has sailed into my Manitoba deep freeze?
Was it my faint effort to mirror Winslow Homer’s advice?: “Travel widely, experiment boldly, love deeply.”
Jan and I spent a month with family in Maple Ridge and Victoria. I rode the SkyTrain. I let my beard grow flaxen and breathed deeply of an urban strain of Pacific pollen not available here in the centre of the continent. I spent time with family and not crawling under the cottage to do battle with dragons and sewer lines. I read a story in front of a crowd of dubious strangers. (Most fully awake.) I lived with a beagle.
I marvelled at marvellous grandchildren, cherished children and found a way to pray for one of them in particular—I suppose that’s true, after a fashion and as John Prine might sing, “in spite of myself.” (I am not first-team all-star when it comes to prayer.) Yes, there was a scary thing.
I’ve worked on less familiar tenses. I cut my dependence on ING words, writing as I too often do, with withering, wringing present participles. I’ve come up with my own Victor Frankenstein of a story-shape theory, resurrected from the cadged prose cadavers of Vonnegut and David Jauss. (They go together like beer and bacon. Piss an’ porcelain.)
I’ve heard and read learned comments on inspirational subjects:
“Poets are the unauthorized legislators of the universe.”—Mary Shelley
“It’s necessary to be pushy, but fatal to appear so.”—one of Bertram Russell’s old Profs.
“Root your story in what is particular and original rather than that which is re-hashed.”—Carolyn Gray
“I’m burly and brawny, not squirrely and scrawny, and if you don’t like me that’s tough.
I shit thunder and lightning, and everything frightening, and where I come from that’s enough.”—Red Lightman
“The writer stands apart and can adjust all aspects of the story in pursuit of specificity.”—George Saunders, via Carolyn Gray
I’ve filled my characters’ pockets with objects in order to get to know them, but I have not shared with the reader what these things are. I know the precise shade of yellow for all of these things: Mustard after the bottle has been thrown and smashed against a reddish mahogany kitchen wall… a melon… a September poplar leaf… a pickerel belly.
I’ve done all of the former plus more: Put on miles and miles on the X-C trails, heard a lot of Canucks games on my tablet (late in the Manitoba night) and also sipped—near Craigflower Road and other salty strasses—on a fresh Phillips First Bjorn, a delightful, light beer with a helluva lotta HOPS! All of this must constitute some kind of writing magic formula. A love potion expressed in diction and syntax, story, plot, character, and a restless soul.
I have killed two hapless MCs in this batch. Neither one saw it coming. Neither deserved it—not even close. But, hell… Shakespeare killed 74. (One of them ate hot coals!) Ms. O’Connor knocked ’em off like shooting cans offen thater split rail fence yonder. Right? I’m just getting my party started!
“Operation Night Bandit” (YA) | 1,067 words—written 11.9.19 | Submitted
“A Man of Reason” | 2,100 words—11.17.19 | Submitted
“Hazel Creek” | 1,500 words—11.20.19 | Submitted
“Regrets De Foie Gras” | 400 words—11.30.19 | Submitted (contest)
“The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon” | 1,850 words—12.20.19 | Accepted by Agnes and True
My 450-word-or-less flash fiction, “Din and the Wash Bear” appears today on the flash portion of the Pandemonium Press family of literary sites, Doorknobs and Bodypaint Issue 95. This Berkeley-based online zine is a favourite of mine — especially because I’ve had success in Dorsals and riverbabble, with appearances in a half-dozen issues, or so.
For this month’s Dorsals section, I responded to a themed call that asked for short fiction pieces that included a classic noir feel and a femme fatale. I did so, allowing my immediate surroundings to influence my character selection.
I hope you enjoy it. If you do, just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.
This page is a memorial site for the life of Jesse Toews, of Steinbach, MB.
“We’re stronger in the places where we’ve been broken,”—Ernest Hemingway
Celebration of Life
Jesse’s family is grateful for all the kind gestures of condolence. We are holding a celebration of Jesse’s life on Saturday, Sept 7 at 11 am in the Tamarack Room of the Qualico Family Centre in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg. The site is near the Duck Pond (and ample parking) at 330 Assiniboine Park Drive.
Update: Sept. 9 Our gathering in the park was particularly uplifting and affirming. Thanks to all who attended and thanks to the staff at the venue for a wonderful setting and family event. Our sister, Mom, Aunt, etc. Marnie Fardoe is to be commended for her tireless work, both as Mom’s number one advocate in life and also her loyal steward in the difficult days we have just come through.
On Sunday, the family interned Jesse beside Dad in the grave in Steinbach, within sight of the plot of land on McKenzie, where she grew up and where years later her children and some of her grandchildren attended high school. It was a beautiful fall day and we read Psalms 23 and enjoyed a quiet last time together.
We’ll see her again in a few whiles.
~ ~ ~
The obituary follows below, but this page is intended to host much more. It has been posted and will be maintained as a gathering place for Jesse’s family and friends. Pictures, comments, anecdotes and other loving memories of our mom-grandma-oma may be found and enjoyed here and you may also wish to contribute to the collection.
Please feel welcome. To contribute, send your material to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will receive it and share it with my sisters Char Toews and Marnie Fardoe. Share directly with them if you wish and have their contact information. We’ll contact you to confirm and then share your submission, with thanks and love.
Feel free to share the link with others who knew Jesse and may wish to visit the site.
Justina “Jesse” Toews (nee Harder) July 17, 1933—August 10, 2019
Jesse Toews, age 86, formerly of Steinbach, MB, passed away peacefully at the Grace Hospital in Winnipeg on August 10, 2019.
The eighth of 10 children, Justina “Jesse” Harder was born on the family farm near Plum Coulee to parents Marie (nee Penner) and Diedrich Harder. When Jesse was nine-years-old, her family moved to a small homestead on Mackenzie Road in Steinbach. Here the family continued to grow their own food in their large garden, and father and sons were employed as house painters. A skilled painter herself, she liked to tell us, “Paint is in my blood!”
Jesse was a capable, bright kid with boundless energy. In her life, work was rewarding play. As a child she frequently helped with the care of young relatives. As a teen she had responsible jobs such as a pharmacy assistant and an aide at the Ninette TB Hospital. Jesse married Norman “Chuck” Toews in 1954. Always a quick study, she fulfilled her role and was instrumental in the family businesses, Steinbach Bakery and Grow Sir. She also curled, water-skied, cooked up many a storm, and cut grass—all with joy and zeal!
She was the last surviving sibling in her family. Predeceased by Norman in 1994, Jesse is survived by their three children: Mitchell (Janice, nee Kasper) of Jessica Lake, MB, Charlynn Toews (David Menzies) of Terrace, BC, Marnie Fardoe (Ken Fardoe) of Winnipeg, and five grandchildren: Megan Olynyk (Blair Olynyk) and their children Tyrus and Hazel, Tere Toews (Tom Halpin), Cameron Menzies, Emily Fardoe, and Maris Fardoe.
A celebration of Jesse’s life is being planned for September, details to be announced. For more information on the event and also to share pictures, memories and other fond expressions of our mom/grandma/oma, please visit this commemorative web page: http://bit.ly/JesseJustinaToews
In lieu of flowers, you may want to give to the charity of your choice and then get together and schputt with someone over a coffee, laughing until your stomach aches and your cheeks are sore from grinning. Jesse would like that.
When Uncle Earl passed away, I was troubled by it for quite a while. A friend sent me this passage, often attributed to Victor Hugo from “Toilers of the Sea”. I found it soothing and a beautiful thought:
I am standing upon that foreshore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails in the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” “Gone where?” “Gone from my sight, that’s all.” She is just as large in mast and spar and hull as ever she was when she left my side; just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at that moment when someone at my side says, “There! She’s gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
When I picture my mother’s life through a wide-angle lens, I am reminded of a complicated mosaic of pieces, all fitting together tightly and in some instances forced into place. If it is true, as Hemingway wrote, that, “We’re stronger in the places where we’ve been broken,” then that is how we should strive to see Jesse’s life and her challenges—and maybe our own too—and see things in their true perspective.
Jesse Toews was a complex person and had beautiful warmth, kindness, empathy, and humour. Her incredible energy kept us all hopping and her intelligence and fearless approach to life were all any of us needed to get through the rough spots. For this, for her love, for her struggles, I am indebted and I am proud to be her son.
P.S.–On Sunday, fittingly, after interning Mom’s ashes alongside Dad’s remains we went to the old GrowSir South and had Mennonite Sundaes. They were terrible beastly good.
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I’m equal parts thrilled and honoured to be included in Leslee Goodman’s anthology of The MOON Magazine 2013-2019. As a contributor (“Peacemongers” June 2017) I find myself sharing the lunar night with a wide variety of heavenly minds and rising stars.
Jessica Lake, Manitoba—Local author Mitchell Toews has a short story featured in the new anthology, Out of This World: The Best Short Stories from The MOON. His story, “Peacemongers,” tells of young boys wrestling with issues of non-violence, conscientious objection, and how to stand up to a bully in Hartplatz, Manitoba, against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. The story is one of 23 works included in this anthology from The MOON magazine, a monthly journal of personal and universal reflections. (Full Press Release linked below.) “Peacemongers” is one of eight “Making Peace” selections in the book.
Curious and ready for a great summer read? Both Kindle and softcover versions of the anthology are available on Amazon at a great price! Take a brief exit from this world and its circular rancour, breaking news, rising water and record temperatures and find 23 new worlds to explore!
The theme for the July 2019 issue of The MOON Magazine is Invisible People. It’s a multi-faceted look at homelessness. “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a native, so that he can live with you.” – Leviticus 25:35
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Photo Caption: Here we are on July 20. Photo by Phil Hossack.
POSTED HERE EARLIER (Pre-event): Janice and I live in a 1950 cottage on the shore of a lake in the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba.
We try to live simply out here in the boreal–WiFi and Polish beer notwithstanding–but even the residents of Walden Pond gave in to the occasional venture back to the city for supplies and human contact. Us too.
On July 20 we will try to bring the city to the Park. We hope to be swamped by forest-thirsty urbanites, neighbours, and friendly randos here at our Walden. We will welcome these visitors to be our guests and, if they can, to bring a story, a poem, a song, a painting and share it with the gathering.
A night under the stars. Informal artistic expression and reflective appreciation. Come by boat, windsurfer, canoe. Swim, hike in, ride a bike or fill a vehicle–float plane, microbus, Red River cart, or a 1947 Lincoln Zephyr. . . whatevs–with your most convivial merry prankster friends.
[…] “twas in another lifetime,
one of toil and blood.
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud.
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.'”
Let us, like Bob Dylan’s friend in his mystic lyric above, offer you an evening of shelter from the storm.
AND, if you can’t make it in person, we’d welcome your proxy–a snippet or an excerpt or a few lines of verse. We’ll present your work with reverence and hope. Then we’ll toast you and hope once more—that you join us next year.
Contact me here or on Facebook, twitter, email, Goodreads, phone, or drop in for details. email@example.com to learn about the point in time and space where reality meets infinity, borne on blintering starlight at the 50th latitude.
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.
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.)