Thursday, September 28, 2017

"I was free:" An Ontario woman flees her Mennonite home in the middle of the night


Walkerton grad shares her story of escaping

Sep 14, 2017     by Jonathan Zettel     Hamilton Spectator

 Emma Drummond - Submitted Photo

In October of 2015, Emma Drummond left her Orthodox Mennonite community in Gorrie for the modern world. Her aunt and uncle picked her up just after midnight and drove her to their home in Hanover.

Two years later Drummond wrote about her experience for the CBC Nonfiction Prize and was selected alongside 28 others for the long list.

"Growing up in the Mennonite community I was always a little different and didn't have someone to talk to, so I put it into writing," she said during a phone interview. "I did a lot of journaling ... I have this love for books. It's kind of an escape from the real world."

Two weeks after leaving the community, she was enrolled at Sacred Heart High School in Walkerton. This past June she graduated and then moved with her uncle and aunt — Philip and Anne Schuessler — to Waterloo, where she is currently taking a year off school to work at a Swiss Chalet to save up for college where she hopes to study massage therapy.

"I was kind of disappointed to not make the shortlist," Drummond said, noting the pool of entries was deep and only five of entries from right across Canada made the shortlist.

The story is titled 'Getaway' and is really the middle, most pivotal part of a longer story that could be made into a book.

"I had a life before and a life after," she said.

Drummond explained that the Orthodox Mennonite community she grew up in is similar to the Old Order Mennonites, but much stricter and with no technology of any kind.

"I definitely think there are a lot of misunderstandings between the Mennonite community and modern society," she said. "For someone like me, the Mennonite community would probably be seen as more negative than positive, but that's not to say the Mennonites are not a positive thing."

Drummond pointed to her relationship with her sister.

"It's not that I don't like her or her decision, it's that I don't agree with the philosophy."

She said the community functions and continues by constantly enforcing a separation from the modern world and the quiet lifestyle, close to nature, can be attractive for some.

"There are a lot of great Mennonites out there," she said. "I want to stay away from classifying them as a good thing or a bad thing. Who am I to judge?"

Drummond said it is hard for her to understand how people can live so closed off from the rest of the world, because she found it hard herself.

"But I think some people are genuinely happy to be Mennonite," she said.

Over the past two years, Drummond said she is finding it more and more easy to adjust to the new world she's in. She said she is keen on keeping up with world events and enjoys working, although admits it took her a longer than expected to learn.

"As time goes by, the less surprising every new thing is," she said.

Editor's note: the following is Emma Drummond's entry into the CBC's Nonfiction Prize. It has been published here with her permission.

Getaway by Emma Drummond

I snapped a brussel sprout off its stalk and concentrated on carefully harvesting the green knobs. I was helping my married sister before the next family had me in its grasp for maid duty. The bottom of my ankle-length dress was wet from the dew and swished against my rubber boots. I tugged at my kerchief to bring it closer to my forehead. Ruth didn't mind extra exposure of my hair but most Mennonite women would turn a disapproving brow to the display of a girl's immodest hair.

Ruth glanced up. "What are you thinking about?" she demanded. She had this habit of asking me that question at the most unexpected times.

I kept my head bent to conceal my anxiety. "I was just thinking about what quilt to make this winter. I stood up and brushed my faded apron nonchalantly.

As Ruth started talking enthusiastically about whether a Trip Around the World would be a better than The Lone Star pattern, I swallowed guilt. Who am I? Am I possessed by the devil? If Ruth had the slightest idea of what I was thinking, she would go screaming off to the bishop for an emergency prayer meeting. So I was keeping a secret. I'd always been a dreamer, keeping thoughts to myself to avoid being burned by fellow Mennonites. I was always inwardly rebelling against the rules of the church but outwardly keeping my feelings tamed.

Sunday morning arrived. I ran downstairs to the kitchen and splashed cold water over my face from the basin at the sink.

"Hey Ruth, I was thinking that it would be a great morning for me to walk to church," I suggested, feeling anxious and jittery. Ruth had meandered from her bedroom. My uncle's stolen phone number, scratched onto a scrap of paper, seemed to be crackling like a mindless chicken in my in black coat pocket. My uncle was English, the term Mennonites used for modern people who lived opposing lives to us. Phone calls weren't on our pious Mennonite group's agenda. To make me a shade more evil, the reason for the call was the unthinkable.

Ruth flew into a flutter of excuses for why I should by no means walk to church. I worked too hard. It was the day of rest. I could go with her in her husband's buggy.

"I've been looking forward to walking to church all week. I can relate to God better. Being surrounded by nature prepares me for the service," I said.

With that reason, she let me out the door while following me out and asking if I was sure that I didn't want a horse to put in the energy for me.

"I'm absolutely positive!" I laughed, as though she were silly for even thinking it.

I strolled along until I was out of sight then broke into a panicked run. I couldn't waste any time, or I'd be late for church and I would get questioned. I darted into an English driveway, so nervous I saw double. I pushed the doorbell. A young woman came to the door.

"I was wondering if I could make a phone call," I panted.

"Was there an accident?" Her forehead creased with concern.

I tried to be calm and persuasive. "I just want to call my uncle."

She waved me inside. She pulled out her cellphone from her pocket.

"I don't know how to use a phone," I said. "Here's the number."

She dialed the number for me.

I picked up the phone. I heard a faint mumble. I strained my unaccustomed ear.

"Uncle Philip, are you there?"

"Can you make his voice louder?" I asked, near frenzy.

The woman magically tapped and pressed her phone. When she handed it back, Uncle Philip's voice sounded clearly and loudly. Relief washed over me, but only for a second before a fresh bout of butterflies arrived. I now had the opportunity to make the sinful request.

"Yes, who is this?"

"This is your niece, Emma. Remember which one I am? I'm the youngest."

"I know who you are. How's it going?"

"I wanted to ask if you could pick me up sometime in the next two weeks?" I heard my voice crack out the words. My mind refused to enter into the moment. The phone trembled in my hand.

"That would be fine. Any time."

"Actually, could you pick me up tonight at midnight?"

"Are you ready?"

"Of course, I'm all packed."

I asked him the colour of his car. "So don't pick me up before midnight. I will be going to a youth singing first."

I handed the phone to the lady before I dashed out the door.

"I'm running away," I whispered with a shriek of triumph. My feet floated on air. "I can't imagine the shock wave that will hit the community."

Then I groaned. A whole day of putting on a normal act was going to be hard. What if I broke down and cried during the three-hour church service?

The grey-bearded minister preached about the reaping of those who sow. The pine bench hardened under my seat. I tried to keep from fidgeting like a seven-year-old. I looked the minister in his eyes, in case he was trying to make me feel guilty or change my mind. "It's too late now," I thought defiantly to him. "So I will be damned?" I reaffixed the normal look on my face.

Finally evening arrived. All the youth from sixteen to twenty-two were arriving at the home where the singing was to be held.

After supper was over and the dishes sat sparkling in the cupboards, the girls went outside to take a walk before the singing began. We ended our walk on a hill. Every now and then a girl would say some boring holy thing, like how we can grow so much from the sermon we heard today. As I stood on the hill, coyotes howled. I shivered. What if I came home late and Uncle Philip would be waiting in his car? Ruth could take me to the bishop or any form of confinement. If I missed my chance tonight, it would be ten times harder to pull it off a second time with owl's eyes staring at my every move.

I trailed the girls back into the house. The singing started. The light from the kerosene lamps failed to reach the hymn book in my lap. I pulled out a flashlight from my pocket to see the words. The girl beside me twitched nervously. I knew that she didn't want attention for having a flashlight on. I stopped caring. Wasn't this my last chance to show everyone what I thought of the senseless rules? I sang earnestly to calm my mind, but my knees insisted on shaking like twigs in a storm. I chose a farewell song, hoping to speed up the ending of the singing.

Sometimes a girl chose a farewell song so the boys would get the hint that it was time to quit singing. It didn't work.

I arrived at my sister's house at 11:15. I tiptoed around the house. I set my suitcase outside the door. I took my alarm clock and a flashlight outside with me and sat on the back steps in front of the house, facing the road. I was still wearing my plain blue Sunday dress and freshly starched white head covering. I watched the hands move on the little battery-operated clock and watched every car flash past on the highway. My heart thumped like a horse trotting on a paved road.

Then a grey car crept slowly past the house. I flashed my flashlight. A raw burst of energy made my body forget the toll the day had taken on it. I gave myself over to hope. Hope that my ticket to freedom had arrived.

"If it's Uncle Philip, he'll know what that flash of light means," I thought. Sure enough, the grey car turned around and stopped. The headlights went out. I rushed out to the car as fast as my shaking twigs could take me.

Uncle Philip emerged. I felt relieved at the sight of his tall protective figure. "Emma, are you OK?"

"We should hurry. Where should I put my suitcase?" I stared at Ruth's bedroom window. For all I knew she might be staring back at me.

"Throw it in the trunk," he replied, sensing my rush.

I did so then awkwardly opened the car door and flopped in the back seat. Aunt Anne was sitting in the front with Uncle Philip. The engine started and the car purred soothingly to my unknown destination.

I loved the speed of the car. "Where do want to go?" Anne asked.

"I don't know."

"Do you want to stay at our house?"

"If you're OK with that." Living with Aunt Anne and Uncle Philip would be a dream.

"Why did you want to leave?" she asked.

I hesitated. "I don't want to speak evil of my dad …"

"Did he hurt you?"

"Yes," I replied, relieved she was not surprised. Anne asked what I wanted to do.

"Maybe get a job". I didn't want to admit it, but I had no idea what to do now that I was out of the community. Exactly what did modern people do for a living?

When we pulled into their driveway I had to ask Anne how to open the car door from the inside.

I stepped into their house. Philip and Anne poked light switches to flood the house with bright light. There were holes in the walls for plugs. Photos hung unashamed on the walls. My gaze gravitated toward the phone sitting on a stand of some kind. I shied away from the sofas that primly lined the walls. My eyes searched for something familiar. I settled with the chairs. They were wooden and varnished like the ones back home.

I saw a fancy fruit bowl with a special hook from which bananas hung. "So this is how modern people present the delicacy of a banana," I noted. Philip and Anne led me to a room. The carpeted floor danced before my eyes.

"This is your room, Emma," Uncle Philip said as though sleeping in a room with furry carpets was no big deal. I wanted to run my hands through the soft carpet, to feel it and become familiar with the intimidating strangeness of it. I was unprepared, yet eager to discover. An overload of emotions swirled dizzily throughout me. I kept expecting my family or the bishop to show up and reprimand me, but I was free.


Walkerton Herald-Times

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Mennonite girl problems


Continued from Still Mennonite

The day after the three holidays in a row was a major laundry day. It was the most dreaded day of the week. When I lived at home, I hated that day with a passion. Even worse than the regular Monday. It was exactly the same every time. Before last holiday ended, we would sort beans to cook the next day for lunch because there would be no time to make anything else.

Monday or the day after the three day holiday mornings, all the women in the colony got up earlier than any other day of the week. That was where the women had their chance to shine. It was a fierce competition to see who could get their laundry on the clothes line first. Not only that, but the woman who had the whitest whites on her clothes line first was the winner. She would be considered to be the best wife, mother, and housekeeper in the colony. 

I woke up to the sound of the pressure cooker on the stove and smell of beans cooking. I was excited about the day rather than being depressed like I always was when I lived there. I had no other clean clothes to wear except my jeans that I had brought to travel back to Canada in. I put on the jeans, pulled my hair up into a messy ponytail and went straight to mom to explain before she had a chance to give me a lecture about wearing jeans. Surprisingly she just said, “Okay”, and sat down beside me at the table. We bowed our heads, said our mealtime prayer, and enjoyed a nutritious knox-kuak and instant coffee before the laundry fiasco began.

Some people in the colony had an electric washing machine by then, but my parents still used a manual schtuk machine to do their laundry. When I went outside the sun was just peaking over the mountains and smoke was rising up past the windmills at most homesteads throughout the colony as people were heating water to wash their whites. The air was fresh, crisp, with a smokey smell to it. The cockerels of roosters and the sound of cows mooing echoed across the entire colony. I hadn't realized how much I had missed all of that until that moment.

The neighbor lady to the right worked hard to get ahead of me, and she beat me. She had half a line of whites up before I started hanging our whites. She stared at me a lot, but every time I looked over at her, she quickly looked down, so her hat covered her face. I had grown accustomed to saying hello or good morning to people in Canada. I had an incredible urge to yell ‘good morning’ across the fence. But I was able to control my urge and just carry on with the fierce competition. I was still ahead of the neighbor to our left.

I was exhausted by the time I had one load of whites on the clothes line. I went inside, poured myself a cup of water and sat down to drink it as I stared at the nine loads of laundry piled up on the dining room floor, waiting to be washed. My nostalgia suddenly took a turn in a different direction. Sara was busy making tweeback dough, so Agatha came out and helped keep us in second place with hanging the rest of the whites, but I threw in the towel when it came to the darks. I thought, “Let all the others shine. I give up.” 

When I went back inside again, it was very loud as all the kids were getting up and running around the house. I asked mom, “Do the neighbors have one of those fancy spinner washing machines?” Hoping that the answer would be yes so I felt better about losing.

“No, our neighbors on both sides are still using a schtuk machine,” answered mom.

My George influenced brain surfaced and thought “f#ck!” as I scratched my head where my ponytail was pulling my hair, giving me a headache.

I went back outside and continued to move forward with the laundry and imagined the end of that day when I would be able to lay down and go to sleep. But it got better as my brothers came and gave us a hand. My older brother John drove a car up closer to the front of the house that he was to fix that day and put the radio on. When a  Ramón Ayala song came on about being alone in the world and wanting to die, goose bumps rose all over my skin. Since I had learned enough Spanish to be able to understand the words of the song, I felt it deep in my bones as I remembered my Fula and my friend Richard. The song reminded me to enjoy the time there with my family as much as I could.

My brothers took turns washing while Agatha and I rinsed wrung and hung the clothes on the line. At that point, I had stopped caring about who was winning or losing. Occasionally we would take a break and sit down under a tree, listening to my brothers talk about what it was like being an extra in a movie with Tom Berenger.

Apparently one of the Mennonite men had decided to quit at the end of a long day of filming and just took off without telling anyone. “The next morning when the director found out, he was livid. He punched a tree, knocked everything over that was set up to film next seen, and cursed really bad words,” explained my brother Abram.

“Wow, so what happened?” I asked.

“Well, because he had an important part, they couldn’t just replace him half way through. Filming was put on hold until they could find him and make him come back or they would lose weeks worth of work,” explained Peter.

“Did he come back?” I asked.

“Yes, I came back here to the colonies with the director to convince him to come back. The director told me to explain to him that if he didn’t come back, he would have to pay the penalty for breaking a contract that he had signed,” said Peter.

“Do you think he even knew what a contract was when he signed it?” I asked.

“No, he didn’t know. After we had found him, I explained to him what he had signed and that he would have to pay if he didn’t follow through, he decided to come back and finish the job,” explained Peter.

I empathized with that man more than my brothers knew. I too had learned the hard way about signing a contract without fully understanding what I was signing and then having to pay the consequences for it after. Most people from the colonies would have never heard of such a concept. When I signed the rental agreement for my apartment, I had no idea what I was signing. When I got laid off from my job and couldn't pay my rent that’s when I learned that I had signed a twelve-month lease and I couldn't move out before the end of the twelve months. The hardest part was figuring out how to pay rent when I had no income. Luckily I had a neighbor, George, who always came to my rescue and helped me figure it out.

“I bet these film people were happy to have that many people willing to work on the movie set, but they probably had no idea how little the Mennonites knew about contracts and stuff like that,” I said.

“Yeah. The director often asked, ‘Who are you people and why are you living here in the Mexico desert?’”

“I bet,” I answered as we got up and continued with our laundry.

By lunchtime, we had two loads of laundry left to wash, rinse and hang. But then we still had to take all the laundry off the lines, bring it inside, fold it, iron the pleats back into our dresses and put it all away. I sat at the table and let out a big sigh just thinking about all the work we still had ahead of us.

Lunch was so good. Sara had baked fresh tweeback and made my favorite salsa to add to the beans. I missed George as the meal reminded me of the day that he came over while I was wearing my beautiful ‘purple dress’,  and I ended up serving him the same meal we were eating.

After lunch, Agatha stayed inside to help Maria do the dishes, while the rest of us went back outside to finish washing the rest of the laundry. We had one load left to hang on the line when Javier, my new cowboy friend came over to have his pickup serviced by my brothers. When he stepped out of his pickup he looked right at me, smiled, and greeted me by taking off his cowboy hat and bowing before me as he said, “Anita.”

I blushed and quickly continued working so no one would notice my flushed cheeks. I suddenly realized how hot the afternoon sun had gotten. I hung laundry on the line trying to act like a ‘good Dietsch girl’ who wasn’t bothered by that at all. My thoughts went to a place of anger again as I thought about the fact that a visit from someone like Aaron Neudorf would be perfectly acceptable, but not someone like George or Javier all because they were both not Dietsch. Thinking about George made me feel guilty for the attraction I was feeling for the tall, incredibly handsome, olive skinned cowboy. I allowed my mind to imagine dancing with him at the dance he had invited me to in Nuevo Ideal on New Year's Eve.

I tried to talk myself out of even considering going to the dance with Javier. When I thought only about myself, I had a really hard time coming up with a good enough reason not to go. But considering that the entire colony would be against it and that mom would never hear the end of it was almost enough to crush the idea. I knew George well enough to know what he would say if I were to ask him what to do, “Anna, go experience and live the shit out of life,” like he said when Sam asked me out on a date.

The idea of spending more time with Javier was growing on me especially after I experienced his company on my lonely holiday. After my visit to the mountain, I could tell him that I understood that feeling he told me about being separated from one's soul. I wanted him to know that telling me about it helped me put words to what I was experiencing. I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that he felt comfortable enough to tell me about that. I carefully considered how I would explain my version of that feeling to him. Even though it made perfect sense in my mind, I knew that I might not have the vocabulary to voice it. But since Javier spoke both English and Spanish I thought if I combined the two I just might be able to transfer it into words that only he would understand.

I decided right then and there that I would definitely never be able to express something like that in Dietsch. I knew that if I would even attempt to try and explain that to someone in Dietsch, that I would probably be put on the next bus to a special hospital in Durango city to deal with my nerve problems once in for all.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Still Mennonite


Continued from A Mennonite basket case

The next day was the last holiday. My parents had nothing planned for the day, so mom suggested we take the horse and buggy and go have a picnic in the mountains behind the colony. Everyone loved that idea except my older brothers. They had other plans.

At that point, the horse and buggy had become somewhat of a lazy Sunday type of transportation.

My sisters decided to come along and spend the day with me instead of hanging out with their youth group again. We all pitched in, packed a lunch, and faspa for the picnic, and off we went on a two-hour buggy ride through the colony to the mountains.

The sun shone brightly on my face, and it made my eyes water as we passed the fence where I had fought off Aaron Newdorf with a mason jar many times. My heart began pounding inside my chest, and it got worse as we passed the Neudorf farm. Finally, I got brave enough and asked my sister, “Sara, do you know if Aaron Neudorf moved away?”

My heart sank when she answered, “He went to work in Chihuahua, but he came back for the holidays. He just doesn't stay in the colony much anymore. He mostly hangs out with Mexa. We see him come home once in a while.”

I tried to act neutral so she wouldn’t notice my growing anxiety when I asked, “Where does he go when he goes with the Mexa?

Potes (Nuevo Ideal) mostly, I think.”

“Okay.”

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, Aaron’s sister Agnes told me to say hi to you. She said that she would love to see you.”

“Okay, really, she wants to see me?”

“Yes.”

“Did she get baptized yet?”

“No, not yet, she was going to, but then all the ministers left, and there was no baptism this year. Anyone who wants to get baptized in the new year will have to go to La Honda, Zacatecas.

“Wow, yeah that’s going to be interesting how that will work.”

“Yeah.”

“Does she have a boyfriend?”

“Yes, but you don’t know him. He's from a colony far past Potes.”

“Oh okay.”

When we finally arrived at the mountains, it was lunch time. My sister spread a blanket out on the ground, while mom and I got the food out. We sat down in a circle, and when we all bowed our heads to say our mealtime prayer, aside from the echoing caw sounds of the crows soaring above us, it was quiet. It felt like we were the only people on the planet.  

The breathtaking view of the landscape and the crows gliding around in circles in the clear blue sky made it hard for me to continue to worry about having to face Aaron Neudorf at some point.


After packing up the leftover food, my sisters and I wandered around exploring the area. As I looked up at the gliding crows, I asked my sister, “Do you think anyone has ever climbed to the top of that mountain?”

“Our brothers have, but I'm not sure if they climbed all the way to the top, though.”

“Do you think we could climb all the way to the top?” I asked.

“Ahhh, I think we could, but it would be dangerous, there could be snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, and… ah, more snakes.”

“I would love to climb all the way to the top, wouldn't you?” I asked.

“Ah, yeah, but…”

“Let's ask mom and see what she says,” I suggested.

I presented the idea to mom, and she said, “Okay, but only you, Sara, Agatha, and Jacob. The rest of the kids have to stay here with me. Just be careful--there could be snakes.”

“Okay, yes, we’ll be careful,” I answered, and off we went, climbing the mountain.


There were some steep areas that were difficult to climb. As we climbed further up, there were shrubs, bushes, and cactuses with extremely sharp thorns that were hard to climb past, especially in a dress.


When we finally reached the top, I turned around to look at the view. It was the most beautiful view I had ever seen. You could see the entire colony from up there. All those windmills looking back at me suddenly didn’t feel so intimidating anymore. They looked so tiny and insignificant from up there. Looking down at the horse in front of the buggy, the horse looked like an ant. I felt amazingly powerful up there. I thought, “Finally, I have done it. I have gone where no man has gone before.”

“Look, there’s a hole on the side of the mountain over there,” shouted Jacob. “Let's go see it,” he said as he began climbing the side of the mountain.

Sara, Agatha and I followed him. As we got closer to the whole, the view got even better. You could see Lake Santiaguillo from up there. It was breathtaking.

Upon approaching the cave, I was disappointed to discover that others had climbed that mountain before us. The evidence spoke for itself. There were a couple of beer bottles lying around a fire pit. Inside, in the middle of the cave, was a big rock that served as a table. Around the big rock were smaller rocks that had been used as chairs to sit on. 


As my siblings went exploring the cave, I stood there alone with my thoughts, looking down at the view from the cave, admiring the crows gliding so close above me, breathing in that fresh air, and feeling the warmth of the Mexican sun on my back. Words couldn’t explain the feeling. It was like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was standing on top of a mountain in the country where I was born, surrounded by my family, my colony, my childhood memories, and, of course, memories of Aaron. But up there, I didn’t feel trapped by any of that. I felt free. Free like the crows I admired soaring so effortlessly in the sky, superior to all the windmills that had haunted me for so long. It was like the crows were telling me that my Fula was as free as they were and that it was okay for me to let go. That’s when I knew that feeling that my new friend, Javier the cowboy, was trying to explain to me, about being reunited with your soul. I didn’t have the vocabulary to process that in my thoughts, but I felt it deep in my bones. And that’s when I knew that I could never say goodbye to Mexico forever, because that would mean that I, too, would be separated from my soul, as Javier described. I suddenly got the shivers and felt very cold.


I went to join my siblings in the cave and said, “This would be an awesome place to camp, don’t you think?”

“You mean, stay for the night and sleep here?” asked Agatha.

“Yes.”

“Ah… but there are snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas out here.”

“I haven't seen any. Have you?”

“No, but they would probably sneak up on you at night when you are sleeping.”

I envisioned waking up to a snake crawling on me, and that was the end of that idea. “Okay, let's make our way back down,” I suggested.

The way down was much faster and easier. When we got back down, dad had made a fire to heat water for coffee. We all sat quietly in the shade under a bush and had faspa before heading back to the colony.

It was the best day I had ever experienced in Mexico. In Canada, faspa had become a story I told someone who asked me about life in the colony. I hadn't realized how much I had missed it until that day, and I was able to figure out some more important things as I combined my experiences growing up with what I had learned while in Canada. I decided that for me, faspa was not about a cup of instant coffee, sugar cubes, tweeback, and pastries. It was about the people you shared it with, even if you didn’t see eye to eye on things with them. It was about just being able to set aside those difference and be still in each others’ presence while enjoying faspa.

On that long, quiet buggy ride back to the colony, with my new-found hope for life in Mexico, I imagined how I could combine more of my two worlds. I imagined how I could place my imaginary boyfriend George into the colony setting. I began imagining life in the colony during faspa with George by my side. My thoughts became very loud as I allowed them to go way too far. I thought, “If George would get a haircut, I could put a long sleeve plaid shirt on him, button it all the way up to hide his tattoos, and tuck it into his jeans, and if I could keep him from getting frustrated, it could work.”

I knew better than even to think up such an idea. Setting aside imagining my family's reactions to him as my partner, I envisioned it anyway, and this is how it went. We were all sitting in a circle having faspa at the mountains we were just at. My new favorite place in the world. I imagined it so beautifully: George would be smiling, enjoying a tweeback, and every time I looked at him he would wink at me, sending shivers down my spine as always. But suddenly in my imagination, things took a turn toward reality. George got up, ripped the plaid shirt open, buttons flying everywhere, landing in our instant coffees, on top of our pastries. He pulled his arms out of the sleeves, revealing all his tattoos, bunched the shirt up into a ball, threw it into the fire and said, “F#ck this shit! It’s way too f#cking hot to be dressed like this.” He walked toward his Harley, hopped on, turned to me and said, “Let's get the f#ck out of here, and go explore this beautiful country.”

I was sitting there frozen and torn between him and my family.

“Well, are you coming, babe?” asked George.

I just couldn’t resist. I dropped my coffee, hopped onto the back of his motorcycle, wrapping my arms around his bare waist, and we took off, leaving my family in the dust.

I was so deep in my head, imagining, that I didn’t even realize I was smiling ear to ear.

Woarum kiks du so shaftich? (Why are you smiling so much?)” asked Sara.

Oh nush, (oh nothing.) I just had a really good day with you guys. Thanks for climbing the mountain with me.”

Jo, me gink dot uk sea scheen. (Yeah, I also had a really good time.)”

“Are you sure that it isn't because of who is in that truck coming toward us?” asked Sara.

“Ah… who is that?”

“That truck that is coming toward us, that’s Aaron Neudorf,” she answered.

My surreal imagination and happy thoughts vanished into the dust trail behind us as I processed the words I heard Sara speak. 

When the truck came closer, I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, and acted as if I couldn’t care less. But the closer the truck came the less control I had over my pounding heart.

When I caught a glimpse of Aaron’s face, it didn’t even look like him. He had aged about ten years since I had run into him at the club in Canada.

He was wearing a baseball cap and had his left elbow sticking out of the window. When the buggy slowly made its way past him, I noticed that the shirt he was wearing was very similar to the one that I had just imagined George in. He looked right at me as he passed us and waved. Seeing him that close made me want to jump out of my skin. I thought, “When we get back to the house, I will have to put a mason jar in my purse again.”

When we got back to my parents’ house, I helped unload the buggy. When I carried leftover food into the cuma, I grabbed a mason jar and put it into my purse. I suddenly felt incredibly weak. I couldn’t figure out if it were exhaustion from climbing the mountain or the Aaron Neudorf mason jar ordeal. I took a few deep breaths, drank a cup of cold well water and accompanied my siblings as they went to feed the animals. Again, when we were feeding the pigs, I thought about Aaron Neudorf. I couldn't get the image of him out of my mind. Especially after seeing him wearing a similar shirt that I had imagined on George. Incredible guilt washed over me, and I scolded myself, “Anna, how could you betray your friend George like that?” I told myself never to dress George in a plaid shirt again, not even in my imagination. Click here to continue reading my story.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Mennonite basket case



“How long are you visiting?” he asked.

“Two weeks.”

“Yeah, I’m just visiting too. I’m going back to work in Texas, a couple of days after New Years. I don’t want to leave. Every time I leave Mi Ranchito, it's as if my body separates from my soul and we never reunite until I return, you know.”

I giggled awkwardly, I didn't fully understand the words he was saying, but I knew and felt exactly what he meant. But my conscience wouldn't fully allow me to enjoy that feeling of connecting with another human being. My mind kept wandering off, “I really hope no one sees this, if the wrong person sees me talking to him, the rumors will get to my mom.”

“How's your drink?” he asked.

“It’s great. Thank you.”

“Would you like another one?”

“Yes sure, I would love another one, thank you,” I answered as I thought, “Anna! You really shouldn’t.”

As he got up and walked to his truck, I thought, “So much has changed, maybe people don’t gossip as much anymore. Maybe I could allow myself to enjoy this experience. I’m not doing anything wrong. I'm just talking to a person.”

I stared at his cowboy boots as he walked back toward me with the drink, “Aquí está, enjoy,” he said as he handed me the drink.

Gracias.”

“You know Anita, there is going to be a dance in Nuevo Ideal on New Years Eav, and I would like nothing more than to take you to that dance.”

I giggled and said, “Oh no, I can't dance, and that would be even worse than going to a coliadera.”

“Don’t worry about that. I can I teach you.”

“I don’t think that is possible.”

“Tell me, Anita, why are the men of the colony allowed to go to a dance, but not the women?”

“Ahhh… good question. One that I've been asking for a very long time, and that no one will answer. Do you remember when there was a wedding reception at the barn on the apple orchard outside of the colony?”

“Yes, that was my cousin's wedding, I was there.”

“Really? You were there?”

“Yes.”

“My brothers and their friends went to the reception. I wanted to go so badly, but there was no way that I could convince my parents to allow me to go.”

“That would have been awesome. Did your parents give you a reason why you weren't allowed, and your brothers were?”

“Yes, it was the same as always, that Dietsch women don’t belong in places like that. And that was it. I remember sitting right there at the end of the driveway listening to the music and wondering what it would be like to be there.”

“But, it's not too late you can still experience it, on New Years Eav.”

“I don’t think that part has changed here.”

“We could dress you up in my sister's clothes to disguise you,” he said, and we both laughed as we sipped away at our drinks.

“Great idea, but I have tried that already, in Canada, and it didn’t work. People still recognized me. I think it’s my teeth that gave me away. Even if a disguise worked, I wouldn’t be able to laugh or smile, so what would be the point?” As I heard myself say that I laughed, but a tear snuck its way down my cheek.

I quickly changed the subject and asked if any of the men from the colony had danced at that wedding reception, so he wouldn’t notice me wiping the tears off my face.

Anita! You have a beautiful smile, and there is nothing wrong with your teeth. No, they all just watched from a distance. But they ate with us.”

“I remember, my brother, bringing home a jar of leftover Pico de Gallo from the reception. That’s when we learned the difference between cilantro and parsley. Most of my family didn’t like the salsa because of the cilantro in it. I remember thinking, “Yes, it's very different, but I like it.”

Eso no es justo, (That’s not fair.)”

“I know, we should have tried cilantro way before that.”

“No, no, not the cilantro. It's so unfair that the men are allowed to do so much more than the women.”

I said, “Yes, I know, and now they are even allowed to work in movies. I want to do that! Man, I wish I could do that,” I said as I started hopelessly across the desert.

“Well, maybe someday you will have that opportunity. I’ll bet you would be great at it. I think a movie about your life would make a muy fascinante, (very fascinating) one.”

I giggled as I tried to come up with a response and ended with nothing but a moment of awkward silence.

He got up and said, “Bueno, pues ya me tengo que ir. (Well, I have to go.)”

I was relieved and sad at the same time.

Gracias por las bebidas, (Thank you for the drinks.) I replied.

I watched him drive off across the desert, leaving a trail of dust behind him. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I finished the drink. Then I went to the outhouse and dumped the disposable cup in there, so there would be no evidence of it left behind for me to explain to my family.

When my sisters came home, I helped them feed the chickens and the pigs. While feeding the pigs, all I could think about was, “Where the heck is Aaron Neudorf?” But I didn’t want to ask about him because I wasn’t ready to answer the questions that would follow.

When my parent came home, we warmed up leftovers for supper, ate and quickly did the dishes, so my sisters could meet up with their youth group again. 

Mom said, “Susana and Isaac are coming over for lunch tomorrow, what should we make, caldillo, kumst borscht, or noodle soup?”

I yelled, “Komstborscht!” before mom was able to finish her sentence. Finally, I would be able to eat kumst borscht.

“Okay, we will make kumst borscht,” said mom.

The next day when I stood by the stove, stirring the borscht, I felt like I was living the dream I had when George came to pick me up with his Harly and took me to Mexico City. I couldn't help but wishfully listen for the sound of a Harly nearby. But there was no sound that was even close to that of a Harly. The only sounds surrounding us were the clip-clopping sounds of horses and buggies. One of the buggies was coming closer and closer. It was my sister and her family.

I followed mom out to the buggy to greet my sister. She handed mom her baby, got off the buggy and came to shake my hand. It was awkward, neither one of us made eye contact or knew what to say to the another. Her two boys sitting on the back of the buggy didn’t want to get off because they didn’t know me. My sister Maria came to the rescue and talked the boys into going with her to let the chickens out of the coop.

After I had eaten a couple of bowls of kumst borscht surrounded by my family, I felt like part of me was complete again. I could finally put to rest at least that one piece of guilt I had such a hard time letting go of. I realized for the first time that it was never about the half eaten bowl of kumst borscht I had had left behind that was hunting me, it was what it represented. It made perfect sense in my head.

My torn feelings became clearer yet more confusing at the same time, as my deja vu continued all day. Just like in my dream, we sat under a tree and knocked sut (ate sunflower seeds).

I sat there and listened to my family talk about how the drought in Mexico had led to the level of poverty people were living in. More and more men were jailed because of getting involved with the drug cartels. Those were some of the reasons why the Mennonites were pushing so hard for a change. That, and to make it easier to maintain their way of life in Mexico. But that had led to the decision that the leaders of the church had made. The leaders felt that they had to leave in order to maintain the lifestyle as they had when they first moved to Durango. They felt that they had no choice but to leave the land where they felt threatened and go to another where they could live separate from the influences of the world. Life for the people left behind in the colonies was hopeless. I could see the toll that it had taken on people, especially my sister, who was worried about the future for her children growing up in that. Her husband Isaac expressed his thoughts about moving to Canada, but my sister felt that it wouldn't be better and one of the reasons was her fear of sending her children to public school.

As the discussion continued, I thought to myself, “We are all in the same boat heading toward Posen Land, but we will never get there without an education.” At that moment I was so sure that I had made the right decision and was doing the right thing. I felt so good about the progress I had made, and I had the people in Canada to thank for pushing me to go to school.

I understood that hopelessness, and it frustrated the heck out of me that I had an answer to that, but I couldn't voice it. And even if I could I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it in a way that I could make people see what I saw. It took a long time for me to be convinced that school was the answer. I had my doubts, but at the same time, I had no one close by telling me all the reasons why I shouldn’t go to school. I was surrounded only by people that told me the reasons why it was the answer to a better future. That was one of the reasons I had been able to learn one word at a time and stick with it no matter how much hopelessness I carried around with me while I was doing it.  

In the midst of all the clutter floating around in my head, I was experiencing an epiphany… a feeling of knowing the answer to something bigger than all of us. It gave me the shivers. I didn’t understand it or know what to do with it. It was like I had been handed a basket with all of the puzzle pieces in it, which had the meaning of all the dreams behind my continuous journey to Posen Land. All the answers were on the puzzle pieces including the reason why I was born into that specific family, at that specific time. And all the guilt of feeling like I had screwed up to the point of no return, were lessons I was meant to learn for a reason. I had it all right there in my possession, all I had to do was put it all together. I freaked out. I dropped it and wrote it off like all of my nerve problems together in one basket, and at that moment I concluded that I really was a basket case.

Later that night, after a couple more of bowls of kumst borscht, I had some quiet time to look into my basket again, and I came up with a real mature idea. I thought to myself, “Anna, you know important stuff now, a lot of very important stuff, but if you can't use that stuff to help people, what's the point of knowing all this stuff?” and that feeling of having an epiphany slipped away from me as I headed back toward Posen Land again. Click here to continue reading my story.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Rising through Mennonite shame


Life is like a Kjrinjel: you never know how it's going to twist.


Reflections on Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries.

June 2017

A year ago, when I received an invitation from Abigail Carl-Klassen to participate in a panel at a conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I said YES! before I’d even finished reading the email. The panel would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico, discussing transnational identities and issues.

As the date of the conference drew closer, I became overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. I thought, Who am I kidding? I can't do this! So I did what I always do when that happens: drop everything and read a book, because now, I can. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Sidney Bater has a library full of books that are written just for me. I picked up one of the books whose title spoke to me: Rising Strong by Brené Brown. After reading this book, I thought, So what if I screw this up and fall flat on my face? I will rise strong and do it again.

That was easier said than done. But I was able to stay focused enough to go through with it. It began with a ten-hour drive to Virginia from Ontario in a black minivan with four amazing women. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all had so much in common.

Upon arriving at EMU campus, I was thrilled to learn that I was sharing a room with Laura Morlock, one of the women that I had just gotten to know during the ten-hour trip. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason for her company was to keep me from letting self-doubt crush me.

What an overwhelmingly humbling experience it was as I remembered George’s words: “Life doesn't happen in the same order for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

I thought, Finally! Not only do I get to sleep in a dorm at a University, but at a Mennonite University. I giggled a little on the inside, because the butterflies in my stomach were going insane with excitement.

The next day, after walking around on campus in disbelief, and taking it all in, I met with Abigail Carl-Klassen and Veronica Enns, who were part of the panel. I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was deeply moving.

That evening, I sat beside my new friends Abby and Vero in the theater listening to women speak. I mostly spent the whole time fighting back the tears, because every word that was spoken touched me so deeply.

After successfully holding back my tears, I made my way to the art gallery. As I stood in front of an art piece, staring at it and trying to feel what it was telling me, a man joined me there. I glanced at him nervously, and it was none other than Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen. I recognized him because I had met him at a lecture and book signing I had attended at Conrad Grebel University a while before with my friend Shirley Redekop. As Shirley flipped through Royden’s book, Villages Among Nations, she pointed out a picture of a Rev. Johann P. Wall, and asked if I could be related to him. And that’s when I discovered that not only was Rev. Johann P. Wall my great-grandfather, but he was one of the leaders who took part in the decision to migrate to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920’s. 

I moved on to the coffee lineup, and there I spotted another familiar face. It was the one-and-only author, Saloma Miller Furlong. I had read her memoir, Bonnet Strings, a couple of months before, and afterwards had sought out information about her online.

After reading about Saloma, I dreamed of meeting her someday. I told myself that if I ever got to meet her, I would hug her, and she would know why, before we even exchanged any words. But when I stood in front of her, I froze, and shook her hand instead. I told her many things that I hadn't planned to say. But at the end of my ramble, she hugged me and said, “Find me tomorrow. I want to talk to you some more.”

It was hard to settle down and go to sleep after all that.

After Abigail Carl-Klassen had presented, I nervously walked up to the front to share my story. I began with the pivotal decision to cross cultural boundaries and two borders--leaving my colony in Mexico and coming to Canada. I shared that I was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and how I faced many barriers as I began my journey of finding my place in a whole new world, one that I had never been part of.

I talked about how I began attending an adult learning center, at which point I had only even written my name a handful of times, and how simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I shared how ashamed I was of my literary incompetence and how embarrassing it was, as I was nineteen years old and felt like I was starting kindergarten. I said that ever since then, reading and writing have been my obsession, and one of the main reasons I started blogging. At the beginning of my presentation, I stumbled over my words and said sort of what I had written, but in mixed-up order. I reminded myself of what I had read in the book, Rising Strong, that it was alright; I should leave my mistakes behind and just continue.

When I read a post from my blog titled Fashion Faux Pas, and people began laughing with me as I read, I knew that I was back on track. That moment was the first time I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. That included speaking in front of an audience about my ridiculously embarrassing experiences that at one point I wouldn’t have wanted to remember, let alone tell the strangers about.

It was surreal—not only being there, but being in the presence of scholars I had only read about, and discussing an art piece in Plautdietsch with a Canadian history professor. Then there was sharing with Saloma Miller Furlong my dream of publishing a memoir, and comparing our similar experiences and our struggles over how to clothe our bodies after shunning our Mennonite dresses.

I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge, hope, and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thanks to Abigail Carl-Klassen for opening the door, and to EMU for inviting me in.

Thank you.
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