Otter Redux

My short and furry flash fiction, “I am Otter” is up on the new site: Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories. The online site, which is aimed at international readers, features stories of no more than 1500 words. https://tale.code.blog/ Editor: @samkandej

I am Otter was first published by The Machinery in August 2017.

Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. He enjoys those splendid opportunities to fire in a one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get green-stained and bedevilled.

 

“Died Rich” Coming to Fabula Argentea

My heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️ will be included in the May 2019 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea

https://duotrope.com/listing/8261/fabula-argentea

Thanks to Editor Rick Taubold for accepting my work. This is a “silver story” of both friendship and hardship that comes from personal experiences and a buddy who left too soon.

Active since 2012, Fabula Argentea receives over 500 submissions per year and from that produces three issues of about 8-12 stories each. Here’s an interview with Editor Taubold that succinctly describes the magazine’s approach:

https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/8261/fabula-argentea

allfornow,
Mitchell

☠️

jung Reiba is Plautdietsch (Low German) for “young pirate”.

 

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!

 

Place and Time

foc flannery place and time quote only

Ah, eternity.

My stories—and everyone else’s—spring from life. Life lived, life observed, life imagined. Life reconstructed.

A vital part of each story—and each life—is place and time. Truths from one era or one location or one moment in a given journey alter and define the future.

Driven by my own curiosity, here is a roll-call of Place, Time, and basic protagonist context from my stories:

i — “Encountered on the Shore” A university student makes an unsettling discovery in downtown Winnipeg, in the fall of 1973.

ii — “A Vile Insinuation” During the summer following, the main character from “Encountered on the Shore” considers fate and blessings at a baseball tournament in Vita, Manitoba, near the US border.

iii — “Without Reason” Now retired, the MC from “Encountered” and “Vile”, is diagnosed with cancer and he considers his plight and that of others like him. Set in his small Mennonite prairie hometown, current day.

i — “Zero to Sixty” A retired man is attacked, near Christmas in Chilliwack, BC, current day.

ii — “The Margin of the River” and the audio except, “Wide Winter River” The MC from “Zero to Sixty” considers what happened the day before and sees first hand the inequity and sorrow that is built into life. All life.

“The Rothmans Job” An odd couple set out on a dubious nighttime caper during a fierce winter blizzard in Winnipeg, during the 1970s.

“South of Oromocto Depths” A teenage boy gets into a foolish skirmish with his father on the Victoria Day long weekend in 1971 New Brunswick.

 “Nothing to Lose” A former hockey player looks back on his life and his regrets in rural Manitoba during the dusty heat of summer, in the Sixties.

“Heavy Artillery” A young baseball fan in 1962 becomes embroiled in adult suspicion and prejudice in a small prairie town — predominantly Mennonite. (The imaginary, recurrent town of “Hartplatz, Manitoba”.)

“A Fisherman’s Story” In 1970, on the Mexican Pacific coast, an elderly woman and her young daughter are dealt an unfair hand. (P.S. — the prequel and the sequel to this story appear in the trilogy “The Bottom of the Sky”. See link below.)

“Winter Eve in Walker Creek Park” A trio of females on a wintery night in St. Catherines, Ontario, near Christmastime, current day.

“Breezy and the Six-Pack Sneaker” A rainy, beery night in Hartplatz in the Sixties is the scene for a tangled yarn of deception.

“The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine” A straight-laced Mennonite husband and wife take on danger in a dark Winnipeg alley in 1934. (Rerun on Literally Stories, Feb 17.)

“Frozen Tag” A man encounters a strange reprise from his past (at the Minneapolis Athletic Club in 1980) in the Chilliwack Leisure Centre, current day.

“The Business of Saving Souls”  A youth pastor in the fictitious city of Tribune, in the northern US Midwest meets challenges in the sanctuary of a gleaming megachurch, current day.

“The Preacher and His Wife” Palace intrigue, Harplatz style, throws a family into an untoward uproar in the 1960s.

“I am Otter” A shunned congregant discusses culture, power, and enfranchisement with a stranger near a lake in Manitoba, current day.

“The Beefeater and the Donnybrook”  A mild-mannered Halifax, NS tourist is mistaken and mistook in drizzly London, current day.

“The Log Boom” Poignant points of view — a father, son, and grandfather in the Lower Mainland of BC, current day.

“The Peacemongers” War, bullies and knuckle justice from the perspective of a boy in Hartplatz, circa 1965.

“Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective” Recalling employment, both the good and the bad in Hartplatz and Winnipeg, 1970-80.

“Graperoo” A piece of Graperoo bubblegum experiences the four seasons in rural Manitoba in the Sixties.

“So Are They All” It’s September 1961 and a young boy receives an education in loyalty and courage in his grandmother’s country raspberry patch.

“The Seven Songs” A middle-aged Canadian man meets a local contemporary at a resort in Mexico, current day.

“Fall From Grace” A boy gets stuck in a fraught adventure and learns about his father through it in the heat of a prairie summer in Hartplatz, 1963.

“Away Game” A 50-something man meets with an older family member at the side of a dreamy, summery lake in Manitoba’s boreal forest, current day.

“In the Dim Light Beyond the Fence” The reader travels back into Canadian small-town hardball with the MC, reliving a fateful doubleheader from the Fifties.

“The Doeling” A brother and sister’s lives entwine from an east coast Canadian city to Belize and back. The Sixties to current day, various seasons.

“City Lights” A small-town “up-and-comer” gets in over his head in Toronto, current day.

“Groota Pieter” Spring softball in small-town Mennonite Manitoba is described, from the Sixties to current day.

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” On a moody Manitoba morning near a spring lake, a youngster and an older confederate fish for pickerel during the mid-Seventies.

“The Bottom of the Sky” A trilogy that follows a “pinche” cabin-boy and the ship’s captain on a fishing charter boat from 1955 Acapulco to the future in a fishing village in the Seventies. (P.S. – If you’re inclined, give this story a read and tell me if you think it could be adapted into a screenplay. I see it in flickering snatches of film in my head and just wonder if that occurs to anyone else. If you’re a screenwriter or in film, I’d love an opinion — tough love included. —mjt)

“Shade Tree Haven” An adult remembers more than he cares to as he thinks back to summers at a favourite swimming pool in the early 1960s.

“The Narrowing” A sensitive boy and his straight-ahead grandfather go through a harrowing experience in the Manitoba wilds, current day. An important secondary character in Abbotsford, BC is part of the story.

“The Phage Match” In a surreal radio broadcast from somewhere in Canada, current day, the evils of drug addiction are the backdrop for some strange characters.

“Died Rich” A high school freshman in a frigid southern Manitoba winter in 1961 struggles to endure.

“Concealment” A fledgling Manitoba business traveller gets more than he expects on a springtime trip to the Atlanta Zoo in the 1980s.

“Mulholland & Hardbar” (Novel WIP) A troubled youth experiences the four seasons in the Canadian Shield: love, friendship, deceit, and violence. 1972.

Drama: From the Greek, “to do” or “to act”

 

 

 

 

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” 

Our German Relative

A Molotschnan yarn
For fam’ly ’round Tannenbaum,
Prince of Peace, et al

Our German Relative 

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 great grass 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, a patchwork 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.

* * *

Not too far from Odessa and the shores of the Black Sea, there was 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 many Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. Obah, 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 conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites 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! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am 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!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of 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 bootheels 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 permission, the answer would’ve been 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.

“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 footsteps 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 kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf 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, far from her native home in Germany. Just 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 – what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, 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.

* * *

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 Tjristowend, 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. Without this visitor from far away and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.

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”.

A Letter to My Conservative Friends

What do you do the day your sewer pipe freezes? I wrote this.

First of all, am I a ‘snowflake’ because I don’t want the environment to be irrevocably ruined? If so, sign me up! I’m in. Call me names if you must just don’t say I’m irresponsible or negligent.

You see, the environment, last time we checked, ignored political borders. So, yeah – I am inclined to pay attention to what goes on, south of the border, down USA way. Also, whatever disease they have right now – I’m hoping we’re immune. But I doubt it.

Therefore, I believe we need more snowflakes, dude! Banks and drifts and dunes of ’em!

More scientists, too. Scientists, most would agree, are best taught in schools, not in houses of worship. “Why?” So the scientists have the freedom to ask, “Why?” instead of stating, “Because that is our faith.”

Let our faith be that we will have the scientists ask why, over and over, and then, well, let’s go from there.

Can we not let schools be schools and their views–from crop science to medicine–be broad? Broad enough, at least, to see that the earth is not flat, appearances notwithstanding. Even at the corner of the #1 and the #12 – a plain if there ever was one.

Gather by the margin of the river? Of course! Scientists don’t prevent that. They shine a light on that Chartered pledge. Gather by any river you want.

Aliens Need Not Apply

‘Libtard’ – a shameful, ignoble word and I’m positive most of my friends don’t use it except when they are with an extreme crowd. Peer pressure. Anyway – am I a libtard because I don’t want a Canadian version of the WALL around “our” part of the sandbox? (The same sandbox we grabbed when the previous tenants weren’t looking.)

Sure, my weak-ass approach might mean sharing more of Canada with some odd Queeg Quegs who did not RSVP. Just like in 1873, when the Métis, French, the subjects of the British Queen, and all the established patches in the quilt around the Red River of the North had to get used to us. And we were a bunch of dike-building, silk-spinning, plum-growing peaceniks. Aliens? Oh bah, joh! 

We sat in our white-washed (inside and out), gender-segregated churches and argued about our ancestors –  the people who waged word wars about buttons versus hooks. (Like Dee Oolah even cared.) Oh, what a magnificent gaggle of crazed zealots we were!

“Mennonites with hooks and eyes,
are pleasing to the Holy Guise.
But Mennonites with buttons and pockets
are choice trinkets for the Devil’s lockets.”

Günter Gross, via page 503, Mennonite Low German Dictionary, Jack Thiessen

We were bonneted, bearded, stubborn, obscenely productive foreigners who spoke Plautdietsch like we really, really meant it. Deutsch issued from our lips even as Canada fought wars against Deutschland. Hmm…I would have thought that was suspicious. It was! It was, and yet they let us carry on – every Hans and Heinrich and Helen.

But we, of course, and to our ever-lasting credit (union and otherwise) made the struck pay off. “Damn it, how those Mennos can make the Red Fife grow!” happy prairie politicians said, twirling their moustaches with fingers dipped in every pie.

They all got used to us, I guess. The Englanders and colour commentators (“A good Canadian kid!”) can now pronounce our strange, umlauted names as accurately as any church elder. Now they prize our books, buy our autos, elect us to high office; even teach us graft and greed! (We’re fast learners and even offer some tricks of our own – like conflating church, and state and industry – a time-honoured way to make pigshit flow uphill.)

So be it – as we were welcomed, let us welcome others. Bring on the frintschoft, the fast-talkers, the money-changers, the dishwashers, the uber drivers and the undertakers. In fact, invite the whole madman’s rainbow garden, sown with every flavour, stripe and viewpoint and let them brandish their curly daggers and their straight laces alike. They will enrich us, and although that road may not be perfectly smooth, it’ll be worth the trip.

So be it, indeed. Even if that means acquiring some new, elastic personal boundaries, or smelling a little more garlic–or curry–or seeing a tall spire, here and there. Even on ‘your’ side of Sumas Avenue.

Also, we must remember: as the USA turns to a Hispanic majority–estimated to happen in 2044–Canada will become an Asian majority by 2050, or so. I want my children and their kids ready for that sea change, not meeting it with irrational dread and regurgitating old great-bias and great-great-hatred.

Soa doa wie doat nich

Am I a ‘sinner’ because I fear the climate is shifting and we are bringing it about?

“We don’t do it like that – it is not our way,” as author Elizabeth Reimer Bartel wrote* with a full heart.

God commanded his flock a long time ago to not worry about things like climate. “I got this,” He might have said, had He cameoed on a TV sitcom.  (Yes, you can PVR God, just not on more than two channels at once.) “You guys go ahead and sacrifice that lamb, dam that creek, burn that whale oil, domesticate those beasts – let me worry about the deets.” We made the deal and now there are nine billion of us and the creeks are all dammed and we are drowning in the deets, Big Oolah.

I’m guessing that since He has not fixed things, He’s either suffering from some major Saviour’s block or He wants us to use our miraculous brains to fix it ourselves. I expect it’s the latter.

Sunday (Afternoon) Golf

Am I a ‘leftist’, or is that just what you call all those who push back at the hate mongering that passes for leadership?

I imagine a foursome for golf. Let’s call it a politically-mixed group. It comprises the American Steve Bannon (I think he’s American? Could be Russian?), a Syrian refugee who froze off six fingers when walking over North Dakota beet fields to get to Canada, dee aforementioned Oolah, and me. The odiferous and the ornery, the omnipotent and the obstreperous.

We play the game not with clubs and golf balls, but by hurling ideas as far as we can. More like Frisbee golf, come to think of it, especially since three of us have beards and one of us wears sandals. (Not Birkenstocks, alas.)

Bannon strikes first, launching now-commonplace shock and awe as far and as wide as his amplified voice can broadcast. He flings it from a high place and some of what he throws lands in Canada. Sharp Operators observe with interest, “Hey! That could work here, too!” they say, grinding their unblemished knuckles into the eye of reason.

Next up, the four-fingered Syrian. She was an engineer back in her native land, so she has rigged a clever device to take her shots; overcoming her physical infirmity. Her prosthesis is constructed of gold and measures precisely 12 inches. Trim it, she did, with history and law, though these nostalgic indulgences were easily rubbed off. Not knowing the course we played, her powerful drives bounced badly, misbehaving and leaving her with impossible lies.

It was my turn, but Bannon’s caddy pushed me aside and said, “Here’s how we’re going to do it!” He took my shot and I admit it was much stronger than I could have managed. It travelled at least a country mile – from dit seid to yan. In comparison, my effort would have hardly made it off the tee. The gallery gave a rousing cheer and noted his black boots and brown shirt. “Natty attire,” they whispered with admiration. “That’s what we need, a man who buys his shirts and his ideology abroad. Someone to make golf great again here in Canada too!”

“You’re up, Big Hitter,” I said, but the Almighty was busy with a call from the hereafter. “Long distance, gotta take this,” He said, His words rolling like thunder. He gestured to the Syrian engineer. “Take another turn,” He said. “Knock one right down the waterline!”

She waggled, she knitted her brow, she rent her clothes, and she bowed her head. Just as she began, the florid caddy ran up with a fully automatic rulebook. “She can’t play!” he bawled, unlocking the safety on his weapon. “She’s not a member! She doesn’t belong!”

All eyes turned to the attendant elected official, whose ruling was law.

“Sorry, I have a previous engagement in St. Pierre, at the Frog Follies,” the official said and he slipped away in silence, his thousand legs churning in practiced conformity.

“Well, look, she’s with me and I’m the founding member. So slow your role,” God said, eyeing the caddy’s red hat and wondering how it could fit over that albino mink coiled on his scalp.

Who?

And it came to pass in the land of Nod–the land of vigorous, sycophantic, sanguine nod–that the lowly caddy became king. “Kiss his ring? You can’t be serious,” I say.

Really though, who would follow such a man? “Who? I scream up at the six-story bunker? Who?” I whisper to the woman, up early to do some baking – the only way she has time. (Meet Netty at the mall, go straight to work, pick up the kids after school, make dinner, work on my dissertation, get dressed for the Christmas program. Is that tonight?) Who? I demand of the once-outspoken preacher’s kid who sits drinking coffee, spezearen and smirking while his proxies inherit the earth for him. Who? I ask of the slave drivers who strain to shove a shop-worn camel through the eye of a needle, “just one more time.”

Where is the line of dissenters – each in that queue as conscientious and true to themselves and their children as Christ the carpenter? Would that line not be a raging, roaring, rippling, steel chain 7,448 KMs long?

“From Bonavista to Vancouver Island;
the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters?”**

And when he shouts, “Bomb them!” we reply in unison, “Give them bread.” And when he says, “Build the wall!” the congregation sings, “Love thy neighbour!” And when he hisses, “They defile Him.” we shout, “He is in them.”

And would that unflinching line not be led by clear-eyed Mennonitisch people with their DISAVOW pens flowing dark; indelible with the ink of their antecedents? I want to believe it would be so. Unsaved, auf’jefollnah wretch that I am, I want to sign on. I want to link arms and bellow, “Not on my watch!” with the same conviction as that hollow pipsqueak who once spat those words in the face of the 98-pound high school girl in the Council Chambers.

The A-word

But, if it’s all about abortion for you, then let’s talk. Let’s take a deep breath. I respect your passion. Many are driven by their abhorrence for abortion.

So be it, I’m not arguing that issue. There might be a fifteen-year-old living on the street who has an opinion – I’ll leave you two to discuss things. Again, deets.

The US president has made clear promises about abortion. It’s off-putting to you that his lifeboat is filled with a collection of repellent Scaramucciesque characters. The US President himself is unapologetically vile in his behaviour when held to the standards we all (try to) follow–conservatives in particular– in our own lives. This US President, the caddy in the little parable above, is shunworthy by any church standard. He and his chosen crew are those who would take you down with them, but you believe it’s the last boat – the only boat.

I sense that you feel compelled because “he promised to fight against abortion for us.” And, “he’ll change the law in America and then we can vote in a Canadian clone here, right?”

Maybe. He could just as easily bail out on you, leaving you with only your heart and no sleeve upon which to wear it.

I  know that you see right through this bad caddy’s specious fake-fervour – you know what he really is. So, why do you believe he will support you when the time comes? His political needs always come first, isn’t that obvious? He’s likely to abandon you for some new expedient and he’ll do it with a tweet. A message you may not ♥.

Tally

If you hunt or are a target shooter or a collector, fill your boots. Maybe you need a .22 for the farm or at the cottage. (That last one is a stretch.) But other than that, I have reservations. I hope Canada does not copy this frightening American trait. GUNS.

The 12 months of 2017 in the United States:
🔫  61,113 total number of gun incidents
🔫  15,501 gun deaths
🔫  31,065 gun injuries
🔫  345 mass shootings
🔫  2,003 unintentional shootings
🔫  2,018 incidents of defensive gun use
🔫  3,949 children/teenagers shot or killed
Canadian numbers are creeping upwards. Do we really want to join in reckless gun ownership and proliferation? The problem is, if we get a “populist” Canadian version of the current POTUS, it might come part and parcel with Republican style anti-gun control rhetoric and policy. Surely we can leave that to our US neighbours. Do you agree?

The Bully Pulpit

As a kid, I was the owner of a late birthday and a precocious nature. I was a small boy, usually the youngest in the class, and I had shrimp-orange hair, a bumper crop of freckles and ears like London Cab doors. Teasing came my way, not unlike the Steinbach snowstorm of ’66. True to popular gingerology, I possessed the infamous redhead short fuse so black eyes and split lips ensued. (Mostly mine.)

I earned, via the court of knuckle justice, a discerning eye and ear for blow-hards. I could spot a bully who was secretly not willing to back it up in the same way some schnoddanäs pastors claim they can spot a gay congregant. I’d hone in on these posers and challenge them:

Runty me: “Shut up!”
Big bully: “Nay!”
Runty me: “Then let’s fight.”
Big bully” “Nay!”

Doing this repeatedly, I developed a keen sense of Naydar. (Nadir too, in some cases.)

When these self-professed toughs backed down, I won a small measure of street cred there on the Southwood School playground. If I was off in my assessment, I endured a physical pounding – so my iterative process, like editing, painfully discerned the true from the false.

I also learned not to lead with my right hand.

Fast forward to 2016. #45 came on the US scene and I read him as a straight up heehnaschiet. A pair of deuces acting like a flushNo doubt about it – my Naydar screamed its verdict like the in-dash Geiger counter on Bond’s Aston Martin db5.

Evidence? His unfulfilled threats against North Korea and his yellow-bellied bluster against women who accused him of a host (not heavenly) of misogyny. He’s all talk, locker room and otherwise. Vietnam deferments, I’ll remind you, made his true character clear long before he became a seedy pop-culture symbol. An unconscientious objector.

I believe Putin has a similar result on his Nyetdar, so please my friends – don’t lead with your right.

#

Fun reading for masochists: Fire & Fury Excerpts

That’s it. We may differ, but I like you, ya know? That’s why I bother with all this nertjeI hope you can still like me. Just maybe not, you know, online. I’ll understand. 🙂

_____

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.

#

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.

#

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.