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.


“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?”


“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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