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“The Last Laugh: A Love Story”

“The Last Laugh: A Love Story”

Beyond Words Literary Magazine, Summer 2024

“The Last Laugh: A Love Story”

Beyond Words Literary Magazine, Summer 2024

TBP summer 2024

“The Things She Read”

“The Things She Read”

Greenlight Magazine, Spring 2024

“The Things She Read”

Greenlight Magazine, Spring 2024

All her life she had believed in something more,

in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses.

–Eowyn Ivey, in The Snow Child

Learning to read was a bit of a rush for the sheltered sensitivities of one five-year old Mennonite farm girl. It fanned within her the flames of adventure, the hidden secrets of empathy, the heady power of words. Even the simplified lives and stilted dialogue of Dick, Jane, and Sally were windows into unknown worlds. She read and re-read The Girl with Seven Names and Thee Hannah. It was years before she understood the historical milieu of these young Quaker girls. She just knew that she loved their spunkiness and identified with Hannah’s dislike of her bonnet.

She made short work of the books in the libraries of home, one-room country school, and church. Their small-town library was a single room in an abandoned store front ten miles from home. Her parents bought what books they could afford, both classical and Christian kid’s lit, books like Tom Sawyer, Call It Courage, and The Sugarcreek Gang. She was particularly fond of any book where children romped across meadows, waded in streams, explored forests, or rowed across small ponds or ocean inlets. Adventure and travel were an integral part of her literary appetite, while in real life she hated all things with weeds, bugs, water, or boats. Truth be told, she harbored an inordinate fear of drowning, but she loved to read about children who knew how to maneuver a scow, skiff, or canoe. Getting lost (and then found) in wilderness or cave provided all the requisite shivers and ecstasy of a horror story.

She gravitated toward Frank and Joe Hardy; they could, it seemed, get just a bit dirtier and run a little wilder than Nancy and George. The same held true with Little Women and Little Men. She fancied herself a detective with Encyclopedia Brown, an inventor with Alvin Fernald, and a writer/adventurer with Henry Reed. If a book included a map she was hooked. The best way to beat the oppressive mugginess of an Iowa summer was to lie on a blanket in the lawn, dreaming of adventures in forest, swamp, or haunted house while brushing off ants and watching out for the ubiquitous garter snakes.

In second grade, she left the comfort of her one-room schoolhouse for a long bus ride to town, which gave her more time to read. Her favorite time of the month was the arrival of the Scholastic Book Club list when she could purchase small, poorly-bound paperbacks for a dime or a quarter. She counted each penny from her weekly allowance and bought as many as possible. The newsprint booklist was in shreds long before she placed her order. She mostly bought biographies, and the lives of famous people unfolded before her: Helen Keller, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.

In junior high, her best friend gave her copies of Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22, which held her captive, “blew her mind.” Her high school English teacher introduced her to Carson McCullers and she hunkered down in lonely isolation alongside Frankie Adams. Literature became more than a mystery or an adventure. It held her hand through an extended period of adolescent depression and identity crisis. At her older brother’s college apartment, she read thick tomes about the Kent State massacre and the Vietnam War.

She dreamed about college but was convinced she wasn’t smart enough. Plus, she didn’t want to teach or become a nurse or a social worker, and what else was open to a girl? While wandering through a local used bookstore, she and her cousin picked up Our Bodies, Ourselves and found pleasure with the aid of her new-found knowledge—and mirrors. During a backpacking trip across Europe with this same cousin, she read Kurt Vonnegut and Bertrand Russell on the recommendation of her cousin’s boyfriend. Questions began to solidify in her mind.

When she returned home, she squelched her self-doubts and enrolled at the state university to study history and religion. Her professors assigned Siddartha and The Immense Journey, Kafka and Potok, Tillich and Kierkegaard. As she had been enlightened about her body, she was now tuning in to alternate world views. When her history professor taught herstory, (while battling obnoxious boys unwilling to learn from a woman) she discovered Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Rosie the Riveter, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, and The Feminine Mystique.

A friend suggested that she lighten up and read more novels, so she turned to The Color Purple, Toni Morrison, Martha Quest, and John Irving, while continuing to read Adrienne Rich and Gerda Lerner. She walked in Take Back the Night rallies and anti-nuclear marches; she attended conferences on women and society; she sat topless in the sun with friends at women’s concerts. She pondered every lyric ever written and sung by Ferron.

When friends’ bookshelves began to include What to Expect When You Are Expecting, she pursued a graduate history degree, perusing Joan Scott, Jill Ker Conway, and John Hope Franklin. She was nearly forty before becoming the mother of two pre-teenagers, when she immersed herself in The Primal Wound. Over the following decade, all she time for were books on bipolar disorder as she navigated the rough waters of her daughter’s adolescence. When late-night worries hampered sleep, she searched for momentary solace in The Bean Trees, then further depressed herself with Backlash, while wondering where her ideals and her life had gone. Through all of it she steered clear of those ubiquitous self-help books which, quite frankly, simply irritated her.

When space finally opened up to read for pleasure, she was saddened to find that she fell asleep far too quickly, which did nothing to shrink the tower of books teetering by her bed. She laughed at the world with Anne Lamott, was motivated into action by Half the Sky. She and her husband began to read the American classics of literature together, something both had missed in their early education: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike. She quickly concluded she had not missed all that much and returned to writers who she, quite frankly, found more stimulating, authors like Miriam Toews or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.

At sixty she became a precinct coordinator, began to register voters, and worked on local congressional campaigns while reading Timothy Snyder, Rebecca Solnit, and Dahlia Litwick. But at night she retreated into her bedroom to lay down beside her stack of novels. She knew she’d never get to them all, but their mere presence gave her a feeling of hope and moments of contentment, aided by the calm meandering of Alice Munro stories.

Then one day, she began a search for some of her childhood favorites, savoring stories with the comfort of memory. She longed to lie down in the backyard again, doing battle with the ants while paddling a dory across an imaginary cove, oblivious to the world beyond her front door. All told, however, she was happy to be here in retirement, a time when she hoped to be able to read any hour of the day, while registering voters in her spare time.

By this time, she had learned that she’d never finish every book, climb every mountain, or solve all the world’s problems, but she also came to recognize how little it mattered, or rather, she began to understand what mattered most. As an old woman, she would choose her books, her mountains, and her battles carefully, as long as her mind, her eyes, and her legs hold out.

“A Mennonite Woman in Thanksgiving Town: The Employment of Edith Swartzendruber, 1935-1941”

Labor’s Heritage, Winter 1991

Text coming soon


“Nighthawks: Puzzling Through Life”

Pacific Journal, Fall 2013

Nighthawks: Puzzling Through Life11

Order out of chaos – that’s what’s so deeply satisfying about piecing a jigsaw puzzle. If you look at my office, you’d think order wasn’t important to me. But at the jigsaw table I can achieve order. –Pamela Johnston

On a folding table in my dining room, taking up space that might be better served as a walkway or plain open space, are the scattered pieces to yet another jigsaw puzzle. This is one in a line of puzzles that I keep moving through its paces: turn all pieces right side up; sort out edge pieces and piece the border; and then, finally, begin work on the juicy core of the puzzle. I use the term “work” in the sense that it is a process, but not because it is a chore. Piecing a jigsaw puzzle is not hard labor, but rather a peaceful process.

This jigsaw puzzle, however, is more recalcitrant than most, if I may anthropomorphize it. The picture, while fascinating, is a bit drab and has a relatively limited palette. The process is complex and sluggish. And still I plod on in my quest for the satisfaction that comes when a piece finds its home and a picture emerges. This puzzle is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I like pictures and puzzles that let me look into other lives: the glow from someone’s kitchen at dusk; a hint of the conversational buzz emanating from a restaurant on a Paris street with the Eiffel tower in the background; or, as with my current puzzle, four lonely figures in a late-night, urban diner.

Appearances can be deceptive. This puzzle does not look particularly difficult, but I know, from my effort to put it together several years ago, that it is. With that attempt I did the unthinkable; I plowed my way through about eight-five percent of Nighthawks before I irritably dissembled it and returned it to its box. A jigsaw puzzle seldom stymies me. In this particular puzzle brand, however, too many pieces are so similar in shape that they appeared to fit when they do not. One wrong placement threw the entire process off balance, turned it into a struggle. I would finally concede that something was not right, lean in close to find the offending piece, and begin again. Finally, I became tired of the guesswork. No longer fun or relaxing, it became hard work. With several hundred pieces remaining, I quit. Nighthawks waited on the shelf until this year when I began to write this essay on jigsaw puzzling.

With my previous failure haunting me, I reopened Hopper, spread out the pieces, and assembled the border. I promised myself–and the three diners and the barman–that this time I would complete the puzzle if it took me all year to do it.

I have a fascination with words and with etymology, how words are put together. You might say that putting a jigsaw puzzle together is an extension of my love of words. – Pamela Johnston

For several years I have considered writing an essay on puzzles and puzzling. (Puzzling can be a verb, but usually in the terms of “her attitude puzzles me” and not “tonight I will be puzzling at home alone.” Even so, I use it as such.) The essay keeps nudging me, in part because jigsaw puzzles evoke intense memories.

Despite a slow start to the essay, I persist for numerous reasons. Puzzling gives me a warm sense of nostalgia for my siblings, my mother, and my childhood. In addition, I credit puzzles with holding my marriage together – my Swiss sense of time has always clashed with my husband’s attitude that “he’ll get there when he gets there” and puzzles often fill those interminable minutes that I spend waiting for him with increasing irritation. Jigsaws also sustained me through many sleepless nights when our teenage daughter would disappear for days at a time. Puzzles have been relaxation, therapy, meditation, companionship, and playfulness. But beyond those external issues, puzzles provide the intrinsic satisfaction that comes when a picture forms out of nothing more than a pile of colorful pieces of cardboard. Order from chaos; life pieced together  from scraps of nothing. Where else could I find one lone activity that has functioned in so many ways in my life?

As I worked on the essay, I would jot down notes on slips of paper, later to transfer them to a word document. It kept growing until it was over ten pages, but it continued to meander aimlessly. I would write a little some afternoon, get discouraged when it did not flow easily, and put it aside. For some reason, the ideas simply did not transition well between concept and page.

Writing, which is usually a pleasure for me, became a chore. At the same time, my friend Susannah, a poet and novelist living in upstate New York, was sending me emails detailing the flowing of her own muses. She was finishing the third book of a trilogy set in the depression years on an Iowa farm. I read her drafts, garnered pertinent information from my parents (both were Iowa farmers in the Great Depression) to pass on to her, and kept hoping that this would help jump-start my own essay or, if necessary, give me permission to drop it altogether.

Discouraged, I would leave the essay and pursue other things: working on other stories, researching information on Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for an upcoming vacation, watching episodes of The Wire, or hunting for a good recipe to make for dinner.

But the pieces of the essay remained scattered and vague. And then began my rerun of Nighthawks.

The two hardest puzzles I ever did were not large. They were each only five hundred pieces. One was called “Close-up of Three Bears” which was all brown; the other was “Close-up of Snow White” and it was all white. – Susannah Loiselle

As I laid out the pieces for Nighthawks, I remembered from my previous effort that, after the monochromatic edge, the next part was not so challenging. The interior of the puzzle contained several spots of bright contrast: the blue-white of the diner light spilling out onto the street, the yellow-white of the interior butting up against the mysterious dark surrounding it, the jade-green of the window ledge edging the bottom of the window. This contrast lends itself well to working a puzzle. At the outset, at least, I would not run into too many problems.

When I got to the people and urns, however, I ran into my first snag. The individual puzzle pieces refused to relinquish the requisite information that aids identification and placement. I could, however, begin with the most apparent lines of Nighthawk. The jade that delineates the bottom of the window soon reached a finger into the interior of the puzzle. In a touch of surprise, the easiest objects to cut from the herd are the stool tops hovering above the low window sill like UFOs in an Ed Wood film.

Each day, Doug watches my puzzle progress while he gets ready for work. Our morning rush to get out the door and on our way to work (on time), which used to be one of our points of contention, now provides a moment of meditative labor for me. I blithely do my puzzle and Doug can take as long as he likes to get ready. This morning, between breakfast and the shower, he tells me that the French word for jigsaw puzzle, Casse-tête, means “head-breaker”. Doug is fluent in English and German and he knows enough French to get by in Strasbourg, if not Paris. He has an endless fascination with word origins and meaning. “Head-breaker,” he repeats, “seems kind of appropriate for your puzzle.” I agree. It threatens to be a head-breaker even though I am momentarily satisfied.

I tell him that I know that this puzzle is going to be hard work. “I’m enjoying it, but I’m not sure I’ll still be saying that at the end of the week. That interior looks pretty foreboding. Not so playful.”

“Schiller talks about play,” Doug continues. “We read Wallenstein in high school and talked about his ideas. He says that play reveals a person’s true nature. But, if I remember right, he’s not talking about something like a jigsaw puzzle with a rigidly prescribed course of action. He’s talking about the play fullness of decision-making that comes before a specific path is chosen, points where there are options to consider and weigh.”

The mention of Schiller sends us to our German language bookshelves in the piano room. Doug grew up in Germany where he studied (and retained) many of the German classics. He did not read Hemingway or Baldwin or Fitzgerald, but we still have a shelf full of Schiller and Goethe, Bretano and Böll. He is certain that he has Wallenstein, but a perusal of the German shelf reveals only one Schiller, Don Carlos. There goes that part of the research–at least for now.

Even though assembling a jigsaw puzzle might be a prescribed process and even if Nighthawks is not relaxing, I plan to keep working on it to the glorious finale. Casse-tête or no casse-tête.

By this time, we are running late for work. Both Schiller and Hopper will have to wait.

We like a puzzle that is not too easy and not too difficult. We have learned that we do not like anything over 1000 pieces and not ones that are all the same color. But pretty hard is good. – Jill Miller

The piecing of Nighthawks continues in fitful starts and stops. The snags are constant; the times when it flows are far between. With less challenging puzzles, it is fun and satisfying to pick out a piece with a vase in the window, the tail of a dog, or a lawn chair on the far end of a beach. In Nighthawks, however, I cannot trust the details. Ears are not ears when isolated on a puzzle piece. Spigots are not quite spigots. A salt shaker is merely a splotch of white. I spot the woman’s face, but can find little of the rest of her. The men’s hats blend into the background with only a narrow ridge of light to help identify them.

There is a flourish of black on one particular puzzle piece that I keep trying to analyze; no matter which way I turn it I see the wing of a raven. For the life of me, I cannot determine what this shadow might be in the grand scheme of the diner. I know that there is no bird in this puzzle; I know I must alter my perspective, but my brain is doggedly persistent with this errant tidbit.

My mind is playing a game with me and there is nothing I can do. Perhaps this is where “play” comes into play. Much like Lewis Carroll plays with us in his tales of Alice or M.C. Escher twists our perception with unending stairways and paths, my mind toys with, and refuses to surrender, the image of a raven. What portion of the whole does this piece represent? My “bird’s wing” remains a bird’s wing until, a half hour later, the piece slips into place at the tip end of the diner window jutting into the pale blue-ish light of the street.

Nighthawks must be one of the most spoofed pieces of art. Everyone, it seems, takes a crack at playing with Hopper’s painting. It has been recreated in numerous movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross or Wim Wender’s The End of Violence. It has shown up in The Simpsons, with Eddie and Lou at the counter. A Simpson’s poster (not in any show) places Homer in the diner with a platter of doughnuts, sitting across from Chief Wiggums and Mrs. Krabapple. That 70s Show seats Red and Kitty in the diner. If you google “Michael Bedard Window Shopping” you’ll find Bedard’s painted parody of Nighthawks with an alligator scrutinizing ducks through the diner window. Poverino Peppino’s Boulevard of Broken Ducks parodies Bedard’s parody: he places the ducks outside eyeing the alligator in the diner.

If you google just “nighthawks parodies” you’ll find more parodies than you can imagine: Star Wars, the original crew at Christmas, Easter rabbits (Peeps) at the counter, Nightmuppets, aliens, Marilyn Monroe/James Dean/Humphrey Bogart, Breakfast Hawks (a place called Molly’s, of course), and zombies. There are more – so many artists and jokers playing with Nighthawks. Something about this painting intrigues us enough to toy with it endlessly.

And the painting intrigues me enough to make a second attempt at completing the jigsaw puzzle version of the painting.

What is funny about us is precisely that we take ourselves too seriously.  – Reinhold Niebuhr22

Talk about Schiller and play piques my curiosity (a little) about the meaning of play– philosophically, theologically, or psychologically. A preliminary search in the research databases at the library brings up articles on Schiller, child psychology, sports, biology and play behavior in animals, and on Huizinga and Homo Ludens, to name just a few. That small foray into research satisfies my curiosity; this is not what interests me most. A trip down this path will take most of the fun out of both the essay and the puzzle.

I find, however, a reference to the “puzzle women” of Germany. I download an ebook by Anna Funder that details the lives of East Germans during the forty years of communist control. Employed by what is now called the Stasi File Authority, these women sit in rooms with bags of documents that the Stasi (East German secret police) shredded in the final days of their power. In the panic surrounding the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending of the regime, the officers burned, pulped, and shredded as much evidence as they could. When their frenzied efforts burned out all available shredders, they continued to rip the documents with bare hands.33 These documents were bagged, but they never made it to the landfill.

In a building near Nuremberg the puzzle women, as they are known, are slowly, painstakingly piecing these documents back together. They do it, one of them told Funder, for the satisfaction of providing the possibility of someone’s peace of mind: that this person might discover why s/he was fired from the university or what happened to a loved one.44 This monumental task could be accomplished by a computer program, but the original document is desired.

Funder describes their work as “something between a hobby farm for jigsaw enthusiasts and a sheltered workshop for obsessives.”55 Several of the women admitted that, even after a long week of piecing together documents, they go home and do jigsaw puzzles. Indeed, they approach the documents in much the same way that they would work a jigsaw puzzle. Utilizing clues from the paper weight, paper type, and the typeface or the handwriting, they find corner pieces and work their way into the center. By the most generous calculations, it would take these thirty-one workers almost four hundred years to piece together the documents in all fifteen thousand bags.66 Despite the odds, the “puzzle women” continue to reconstruct the lives of East Germans as recorded in the shredded Stasi documents.

And still they go home to work on jigsaw puzzles.

Oh ick. Jigsaw puzzles! How can you stand them? If you really need a hobby or something to kill time, knit an afghan or bake some cookies. Do something useful — or tasty. – Barbara Nisly

[Puzzling] is not work or play. It is contemplation and satisfaction. If it begins to feel like work and stops being fun I go away from it. I think of it like a Japanese tea ceremony: the cracking open of the box for the first time, the smell of the paper, the order that emerges. Even finding the right puzzle at the right time is part of the relaxation and contemplation. –Pamela Johnston

On the American Jigsaw Puzzle Society’s website, Daniel McAdam presents a brief history of jigsaw puzzles. He concludes with this defensive statement: “Jigsaw puzzles are a pastime, and I will make no nobler claim for them. But they are a healthier pastime than watching inane (and occasionally vulgar) television shows or playing inane (and occasionally vulgar and/or violent) computer games. And if they are addictive – and they are – they are a harmless addiction.”77

Puzzlers can be a bit defensive about their love of jigsaw puzzles. Perhaps that is because to non-puzzlers, the pastime appears meaningless. Perhaps it is a defense for a hobby that is neither work nor play, that does not accomplish anything useful or create a work of art, and that consists of a prescribed process with only one possible ending.

Doug tells me that he finds the process to be a bit annoying. “I spend my life looking for things: my lost keys or comb or glasses. Why would I want to spend my leisure time searching for little cardboard pieces of a puzzle?” He might be irritated by the process, but clearly, he is not upset by the fact that I have a puzzle on the table, interfering with our meals and bill paying sessions. To be sure, he is quite pleased that a puzzle helps me maintain my patience when he does not want to hurry or be hurried. More to the point, he views the persistence that it takes to piece a puzzle to be a tad pathological. I remind him that he can get downright persistent to the point of pathology when he decides, for example, to study the federal deficit or to scrutinize the hidden costs of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “The pathology of persistence,” I tell him, “is all in the eyes of the beholder, is it not?”

I use puzzles a bit like the philosopher Hume approached games. He said that when he finds himself thoroughly confused and depressed by his musings on the meaning and nature of life he would “dispel these clouds” and cure his melancholy by dining or playing a game of backgammon. “… and when after three or four hours of amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”88

Rather than defending jigsaw puzzles to their detractors (defense being useless in most arguments anyway) I will simply try to describe the satisfaction. I find it almost as difficult to describe the feeling that goes with puzzling as it is to complete Nighthawks. There is an intensely visceral nature to puzzling that draws me in, time after time. I love the feeling as a piece slips into the tessellated whole. (One positive characteristic of online jigsaw puzzles is that the designers often include a sound effect to enhance the “feeling” of placing a piece. It is a resoundingly delightful “clunk” that cannot be replicated in real life puzzling.) All satisfaction can be lost if the puzzle is cheaply made and does not fit together nicely. There are some brands I steadfastly refuse to buy; others that I buy no matter how schmaltzy the picture. I am looking for a certain feel and I will not settle for less.

As a general rule, I place the pieces by color and design; shape is secondary, although not inconsequential, to the process. I find a piece and examine the picture on the box to figure out where it goes. (And a curse on the puzzle company who puts its logo over any part of the face of the picture.) There is, at times, a risk in doing it this way. Sometimes what looks like a dog’s hind leg turns out to be a crack in the sidewalk; a horse’s mane is actually a tree branch; or a raven’s wing is really the edge of the window ledge.

Much like the proverbial lost coin, there is much joy when a long-hunted piece is located, when the picture is one step closer to its entirety. I relish the slow disappearance of the brown surface of my puzzle table as its surface is steadily replaced by an emerging photo or a painting. Sometimes I work by sections, sometimes I tackle a building, sometimes I hunt down all pieces in a specific range of the color wheel. When I need a challenge I begin with the most difficult segments of the puzzle and leave pieces of the house or barn (buildings being the easiest to reconstruct) for last. At times I try to form a single line of pieces between sections. When I want to slow things down (as I often do when I am nearing the end), I limit myself to the bottom four rows, insisting that all gaps must be completed in those rows before I go on to the sky or to the roosters beside the barn. But most often, I just have fun and work the puzzle in a free-flowing, organic way–whatever makes me feel good at that moment.

Doug tells me that what he does not like about a puzzle is that there is nothing open-ended about it. “There is one piece that fits in one place and you can’t creatively rearrange those pieces,” he states. That may be true, but the process is still mine to do in any way that I prefer.

I will not defend puzzles or pit them against television shows or video games or even reading, but I will say this: puzzling is release from the stress of life, a sanctuary without going on a retreat. Like Schiller’s idea of play, it is in puzzling where I reclaim my true nature. In puzzling I have all the patience and perseverance that I so sorely need in life, calmness in large portions, a playful spirit that I do not always reveal to the world around me. I am confident and happy to be here, ready to face the worst of days and most difficult people.

Omnia apud me mathematica fiunt. (With me, everything turns into mathematics.) – Rene Descartes in Discours de la Méthode. 1637

Perhaps watching me struggle with Nighthawks brings out the empathy in Doug. Or perhaps he is just tired of the puzzle. Most likely, he thinks he is amusing. Tonight, over biryani and aloo gobi at The Curry House, he tells me that because this puzzle is so difficult, perhaps I could try a different approach. I concede that traditional approaches have not worked well and I might want to look for another way.

“My idea is this,” Doug continues. “Because Nighthawks provides so few visual clues for placement, why don’t you try a mathematical approach? All you have to do is figure out how many pieces need to be tried in any given open spot. It might be less than desirable, but what do you have to lose?”

My blank look prompts Doug to reassure me that it would get easier with each placement. “But isn’t that how it always is,” I reply? “With each placement I have one less option for the next space–and that goes for either calculating it mathematically or just doing it. The calculations just make it take longer.”

“Yes, but it would give you a clue to how long it will take to complete the puzzle,” he continues. “With 1000 pieces, the first one has not only 999 other pieces, but several ways to place each one.”

I remind him that I already have about one-quarter of the pieces placed so we do not need to start at the beginning. “Let’s just keep it at 1000,” he tells me. “Easier to figure that way. It’s just 999 x 1000 / 2.”

I like math problems, but not when it interrupts my puzzle or my curry. Now if we could find a way to work this into a geometrical problem, I might be interested, but I am less sure about delving into statistical probability.

“We all know…” Any statement from Doug that begins with those three words usually denotes the polar opposite for me. He continues, “We all know that  there are half a million tries to make and four rotations for each attempt. Of course, that’s if you’re extremely unlucky.”


“Of course,” he continues. “The chance that you’ll have to try all 999 tiles is extremely unlikely. Now we’re working in the realm of statistical unlikelihood. And each successive time you could not possibly choose every single wrong piece before you find the correct one. So the equation is theoretically the sum of all numbers from 1 to 1000 (1 plus 2 plus 3, etc.) But it would never be how it works in a real life.”

Sometimes I enjoy these theoretical/mathematical conundrums, but tonight I want to savor my curry and rest my brain. There may be people who find a mathematical approach playful and scintillating. I am okay with it at the theoretical level, but when it comes to my puzzle it merely make my brain hurt. I suggest we drop this approach and move on to something else. Like the biryani.

Doug says fine and that he was just trying to help. We finish off the meal with kolfi and head off to the evening’s harpsichord concert.

I like it when you do puzzles; you’re never as anxious about time when you have a puzzle on the table. – Douglas Kliewer

It is no small surprise that, in the history of jigsaw puzzles, the times when puzzles sold at the heaviest rate were during times of national anxiety. The first puzzle craze began during the 1907 recession and Bankers’ Panic. Prior to that, puzzles were mostly small and made for children. The recession precipitated a change and adults began to do jigsaw puzzles for the first time. Even financier J.P. Morgan (blamed and credited with both precipitating the recession and fixing it) and President Roosevelt joined in this national obsession.99 Again during the first years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, puzzle sales spiked. Aided by a simultaneous manufacturing change where jigsaw companies could mass produce puzzles at a much cheaper price, people across the United States took up jigsaw puzzles with a passion. Libraries even began to loan jigsaw puzzles along with books.1010

My mother, who grew up doing puzzles during the depression with her family, used this stress-reducing method when raising her children in the 1950s and 1960s. With a puzzle she could take her mind off the constant financial problems precipitated by the changing winds of farm markets, while simultaneously keeping her children entertained. For most of the year, my mother was a relatively unflappable woman. Along about January, however, even she began to look a little frazzled and crazy-eyed. In a blustery Iowa winter, one could not have, as she did, eight children in a three-bedroom house that was heated only on the first floor and not go a little stir crazy. There is a limit to the number of times you can send your children outside to play when the temperature hovers at ten below zero.

When the bickering began, she would gather us at the front door with instructions to stand outside and take deep breaths of the frigid air. When we straggled back inside shivering and gasping for breath, she would say, “There. Now that you got rid of all that stale air in your lungs, perhaps you can settle down and put a jigsaw puzzle together.”

And so our jigsaw marathon would begin. After we pieced all our puzzles, Mom would trade with her sisters and we would begin again. Those five hundred piece Whitman Guild jigsaw puzzles with their banal scenes relieved our boredom and helped us skate happily through the icy winters of childhood.

Or, perhaps more accurately, they helped Mom get through our winter boredom.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso

The paintings on the puzzles we put together as children (in the 1950s and 1960s) were of the bucolic sort and it would take a stretch of the imagination to call them art: villages in the Alps, fields full of corn shocks, lakes in national parks, English gardens, the village smith at work, deer standing at the edge of a woods. In reflection of the post-war zeitgeist and self-perception of many middle-class, white Americans, the scenes oozed tranquility.

In the upheaval of the 1960s, puzzles began to change. Jigsaw companies did not halt the production of tranquil puzzle scenes, but their new creations moved far beyond traditional halcyon landscapes. They, too, tried to keep pace with the pop art scene and the mass culture of the time. In homes across the country, it became cool to spread out puzzles consisting of hundreds of bars of chocolate, a sea of pennies, thousands of lady bugs, or sea shells from frame to frame. The truly pop art-ish ones featured different puzzle shapes; square was just too – yes, square. One Christmas, Mom’s friend gave her a puzzle of a tennis court seen from the air; it was entirely green with a few white lines.

In 1964, Springbok made the first move to new shapes – round and octagonal. Within the following year, Springbok’s owners, Katie and Bob Lewin, came up with the idea for fine art jigsaws and created a puzzle from Jackson Pollock’s Convergence. This change, as inconsequential as jigsaw puzzles might seem, was duly noted in Time and Business Week.1111 The Lewins began to search through museums and shops in a quest for anything that they could use in puzzle designs. Everything was fair game: peacock’s feathers, dice, colorful marbles, astronomy charts, and Kabuki embroidery. They even managed to convince Salvador Dali to create an image just for Springbok. He created a work that included scattered “missing pieces” painted across its face.1212

With this knowledge, I google “vintage Springbok puzzles” and find two puzzles for sale: “Millefiori Paperweight” and “The Language of Computers.” Both are round and evoke the 1960s. When I google “Dali Springbok 1965,” I find his commissioned work; I am not sure it is one I would want to piece.

At the time, my mom, my siblings and I delighted in these new-fangled puzzles. The old scenery was yawn-inducing and out-of-style. While I have once again come to enjoy some images and styles of earlier years, I am afraid that I can never quite bring myself to piece together a Kincaid scene. It is just too warm and fuzzy.

Weathered faces lined in pain, All soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand. — Don McLean (“Starry, Starry Night”)

Several years ago I put together only puzzles of fine art paintings: Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, Bruegel the Elder’s Children’s Games, Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Dali’s Persistence of Memory. That was the same year I first attempted to do Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. For a truly eerie experience, try piecing a puzzle of a Bosch masterpiece where you can examine each square inch of the painting, scrutinizing every weird little creature. Bruegel’s Children’s Games only fares slightly better in close detail. Not all of the activities of those little medieval children at play appear to be innocent and pure!

It was late spring that same year when we got the call in the middle of the night from Doug’s sister telling us that his seventeen-year old niece had, after numerous attempts, succeeded at taking her own life. Teresa was a poet, a reader, and an artist. Over the years, she had sent us her artwork and writing, introduced me to a world of fantasy stories and graphic novels, and enquired about the books I enjoyed. At Christmas the year before she died, she gave me a jigsaw puzzle and we spent a delightful vacation together talking and working on our puzzle. Teresa had little fear and approached life with uncommon fervor and joy; she was a great soccer player and never walked when she could run; and she had lots of pets and loved her family. But she also lived with a world of internal pain and walked in a place where the voices tormented her. She finally halted the voices; the midnight phone call froze us in place and silenced our world. At the funeral, Doug’s sister produced a beautiful video collage of Teresa’s life set to the music of Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night.”

Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the Rhone had been waiting on my puzzle shelf. After the funeral I looked at the box, not yet ready to open it. I was too tired and cold and immobile. A few months later, in the heat of late summer in the San Joaquin Valley, with the thermometer climbing to 110 and 112 degrees (as difficult to brave as sub-zero cold of my Iowa winters of my childhood) I brought out Van Gogh and began work on Starry Night. There was a perverse and bittersweet joy in the struggle it took to complete this difficult task. With the yellow bands of light spreading slowly across the river and Ursa Major finding its place in the sky, I plodded on even when the tears dimmed my sight. As Starry Night on the Rhone came together, I thought of Teresa’s body which had been dismantled and flown across the country: her heart to an aging foster mother in Virginia; her kidneys to several recipients in the Midwest; her pancreas and lungs further west.

The following winter I brought out Van Gogh’s Starry Night once again. This time I could piece it without crying, but realized that dry eyes did not facilitate the process.

I’ll have to admit that I’m a bit of a jigsaw puzzle Nazi. First you open the box, then you turn over every single piece, find the corner and edge pieces, connect the frame … and then the puzzle begins. –Pamela Johnston

Usually Noelle helps me turn over all the pieces. As we turn them over, we put the edge pieces to the outside so that by the time we are done turning them over, we have almost all the edge pieces to the side. By unspoken agreement, we are required to put the outside edge together first. When that is done, each of us picks what we want to work on.  – Jill Miller

Most puzzlers, or at least the ones I talked to for this essay, agree that there is a way to put puzzles together. We open the box and put the pieces right-side up on the table; we sort out the edge pieces and form the frame; then we start on the inner parts. Growing up, if we wanted to work on the puzzle, we had to help with the first part of it (sorting and framing), the less scintillating part of the process. “Work before play,” my mother would say. And if that sounds legalistic, it was because one or two of my siblings (I’m not telling on the culprits) would wait until the initial layout was finished then try to get in on the fun part.

Who knew that there could be rules to putting a jigsaw puzzle together? My Swiss/German mother, who was not rule-driven in most of life, became a bit of a martinet at the jigsaw puzzle table. But who could blame her. With all those small bodies jostling for room at the table, she had to maintain some sense of order. I still do puzzles with an orderly precision even when I am the only one doing them.

The one I hold responsible for the rules is my brother Wendell. He had a fascinating need to hold a puzzle piece in his pocket to confound us all. While it was not a rule, we each wanted to be the one to put the final piece, to bring it to its official close. When Wendell held onto one piece, he accomplished several things. With glee, he could watch the rest of us crawling across the floor in search of the missing piece, and he could guarantee that he would get the joy of placing the last piece. And he would place it with a flourish, producing the piece and tapping it triumphantly into place, ensuring that we all knew that he had “won” this round. We all frowned on Wendell’s shenanigans. No we did more than frown; we would elbow him out of place and with the first hint that a piece was lost, we would descend on him en masse to turn his pockets inside out and to pound on him a little.

As I said, there might have been a reason for Mom to impose rules on what should have been a joyfully rule-free, anarchistic family project.

Hard core puzzlers have other rules and quirks. Pamela Johnston’s step grandfather would put puzzles together upside-down to heighten the difficulty. My great aunt Ellen insisted on working a puzzle without looking at the picture; she tried to make us do it that way too. Aunt Ellen declared it to be a form of cheating if we tried to utilize the picture on the box. “A puzzle,” she informed us, “should be pieced without this crutch and with only our own observations of shape and color.”

That was her rule, however, and we only had to follow it at her house.

For me, [puzzles] are a way to have companionship without a lot of intensity . . . you don’t have to look anyone in the eye or make conversation. Sometimes conversation occurs. Or it doesn’t. – Jill Miller

Puzzles are more fun with others. You can say, “I’m looking for this piece that should have a bit of a lamp on it,” and then everyone digs in to help you find it. – Pamela Johnston

By default and not design, puzzling has become a solo event for me. It goes against my idea of the true nature of puzzling as a community event. It is meant for families and friends to sit around a wobbly-legged card table, working together and humming strange tunes, making idle chit chat or discussing big ideas. When our children were younger, my son would join me, but not my husband or daughter. As a solitary event, it does not provide quite the same charm, unless you count the ability to reach across the puzzle for a puzzle piece without someone growling, “Get your arm out of the way. I can’t see through you.”

I have one brother who refused (and continues to refuse) to do puzzles or play games. “Such a monumental waste of time,” he declares. “It’s what people do when they don’t know how to talk to each other.” We, in turn, make fun of him for not knowing how to relax. I could blame it on his being a pastor and a peace activist, two groups that are a bit stereotypically known for their lack of a sense of humor. Except I do not hold to stereotypes and he has a decent sense of humor. Plus, he is an avid fan of Indy Car racing. My question in reply to his aversion to games is, “What could be a greater waste of time than racing?” His retort is that racing is cutting edge art and a great spiritual discipline.

At family gatherings, while the rest of us play games or do puzzles, my brother walks around the room engaging in conversations on politics and theology. What he does not understand is that the best conversations can happen over a puzzle, but minus the fervor and intensity.  In my twenties, when I lived with my cousin Lorraine for a few years, we often had a puzzle on the table. A college guy who lived nearby would drop in to help us. They have now been married for more than thirty years. He says that it was socializing over the puzzle that helped him summon his nerve to come see us – and learn to know his future wife.

There is a lot one can learn about a person over a jigsaw puzzle. My solo stints of jigsaw puzzling are good for relaxing, but it is not quite the same. Puzzling is community at its finest.

It seems that puzzles go poorly for a while and then all of a sudden, I can see things and they come together. Maybe I finally see the variation in color that is barely there. Or sometimes I will get up and move to another spot, and all of a sudden see a whole bunch of pieces that fit. When that happens, it’s hard for me to quit. –Jill Miller

The saddest thing in the world is when you get to the end and a piece is missing. – Pamela Johnston

I’ve now reached the stage where the progress on the puzzle has slowed to less than a crawl. In a surprising move, Doug joins me. He keeps me company, places a few pieces, and asks about the essay. By this time, the puzzle image of Nighthawks is missing only the darkest spots on the picture: the window behind the diners, the space below the cigar sign, and the shadows below the front window. There is almost no variation in shape or color. My method-of-last-resort is in full-swing. I am trying every piece in every spot. Slowly our eyes adjust and together we determine that there are several barely-noticeable color variations. The filmy black pieces are part of the window above the people’s heads and we start with that.

Doug tries once again to tempt me with the mathematical approach. Despite his claims to the contrary, I insist that statistics and reality do not always mesh and I send him to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.

When we finish the window, there are exactly sixty pieces remaining (yes, I counted) scattered outside the border awaiting placement. It is faster only because there are fewer pieces to try and not because placement has become any more apparent. I am still trying most pieces in every open space. There are two basic shapes to the pieces, what I call the squat pieces and the skinny pieces. I sort them into piles based on this minor shape difference. Then I pick out a stair-step of open spaces, a series of three or four spots of the same basic shape and I try every piece from the corresponding pile. As each piece slides comfortably into its home, my satisfaction rises.

This is the point of the puzzle when, if doing it with family, the fingers, hands and elbows are flying across the board in each other’s way and the jostling for the last piece begins. When I finally place the last piece and not one is lost, I breathe deeply. I will not have to get on hands and knees, search under the microwave cart, sweep under the table, empty the vacuum cleaner all in search of that one lost sheep. (Another positive aspect of online jigsaw puzzles is that no piece is ever lost.)

I do not like the end of the puzzle no matter how gratifying it is; beginnings are far more fun. But Nighthawks is now complete. I stare in the puzzle window from the eerily empty street. I will let the people sit with their midnight coffee for a few days before I put them to bed in the box.

As if reading my mind, Doug asks if I am going to put the puzzle away or let it on the table for a few days. “I can’t help but think of Sisyphus,” he says. “You worked so hard to roll that boulder up the hill and now you’re going to let it roll back into the box.”

This is a jigsaw puzzle that I will give away, never to try again. The next puzzle I have in mind has lots of color, lines and variations, but it must wait while I enjoy this moment before I work on the essay, arranging it into it’s final shape.



1 A special thanks to my cousin, Jill Miller, from San Diego; my friend and writing companion, Susannah Loiselle, from Ithaca, New York; and a colleague at Fresno Pacific University, Pamela Johnston, professor of history and classics. All three women love jigsaw puzzles, answered my questions about their enjoyment of them, and allowed me to quote them for this essay. And, of course, thanks to my daughter, Barbara Nisly, who hates puzzles, and my husband, Douglas Kliewer, who (this one time) allowed me to record our conversations on paper, something he usually resists.

2 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, ed. Robert McAfee Brown (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) 54.

3 Anna Funder, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011) 67.

4 Funder, p. 266.

5 Funder, p. 265.

6 Ibid.

7 “History of Jigsaw Puzzles,“ Douglas Adam, American Jigsaw Puzzle Society, Accessed January 22, 2013,

8 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) 269.

9 Anne D. Williams, The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History (New York, NY: Berkeley Publishing Groups, 2005) 65-93. 10 Williams, pp. 49-51. 11 Williams, pp. 101-105. 12 “Springbok Puzzles 50th Anniversary,” Springbok. Accessed March 2, 2013, http://www.springbok-puzzles-50th-anniversay.

“From Laramie to Baghdad: Dreams of Peace in a World at War”

Dreamseeker Magazine, Spring 2004

I am sitting by the railroad tracks at the edge of downtown Laramie, Wyoming, watching the colors of the evening sky spread to a hazy pink in the frigid dusk air. Previously, I’ve known Laramie only as the home of Matthew Shepard before he was brutally murdered for being gay. I make a note to watch “The Laramie Project” when I get home to California again.

There is a footbridge across the tracks, and I notice the silhouette of the trestles. With my camera in hand, I leave the warmth of my car and Garrison Keillor’s breathy monologue about the Passion Play in Lake Woebegon. It has not been a quiet week for me. As I soak in the desolate industrial beauty in the fading sunlight, my eye views it through the camera. It is the first calming action I have permitted myself in three weeks. When I run out of film, I head back to the car and Keillor.

I am in Laramie with my husband, Doug, and our 18-year-old son. Matthew enrolled in a technical school here, and we are settling him into his new life. I monitor each day’s events, watching the three of us cycle through a range of emotions. With the aid of a city map and phone book, we find our way around town to buy eating utensils, cans of SpaghettiOs, and other assorted necessities.

Earlier in the evening when we picked Matthew up for dinner, he told us that his new roommate informed him he hates gays and Mexicans, although blacks are okay, at least the ones he has had contact with.

“Then he told me,” Matthew continued, “that he’s a Christian. How can that be?”

Here in the town where Matthew Shepard died there are many loving people, I am sure. But even the most loving among us find it difficult to love outside our own circles.

As I settle back into the warmth of my car my cell phone rings, shattering my momentary peacefulness. It is one of my brothers who often calls when I’m on a trip. I can sense immediately that this isn’t a “just checking” call.

“Is Doug with you?” he asks.

I tell him no. Everything around me is dimming as the sunlight edges away. I hear a hum in my ears, a deadened roar as if I am under water.

With Wendell’s question, a wave of fear hits me as I remember what has made the activities of settling our son into college life seem so normal and at the same time so incongruent. The U.S. has waged war on Iraq. We in turn are being bombarded with the images of Baghdad under siege.

My parents’ stories of conscientious objection during World War II permeated my growing-up years. I can almost repeat the stories word for word. This war, however, offers a twist to the family narrative. My brother Weldon is in Baghdad with Christian Peacemaker Teams, there to “wage peace.” Instinctively, I know this call is about him.

“Weldon was in an accident. He’s in the hospital in Amman,” Wendell tells me. “He has some broken bones. We think he’s okay, but that’s all we know.”

I breathe again and begin to laugh.

Like everything else right now, my reaction has a surreal edge. I remember my college T.A. explaining surrealism to our freshman English class: “If you open your oven and find one work boot sitting on a cake pan—that’s surrealism,” Russell taught us. My laughter is that boot.

I’ve been keeping a journal during Weldon’s absences, but I have felt reluctant to record mundane activities in a world in which people have been torn from normal daily schedules. Today I write that Laramie is growing on me. I’ve always been a bit intrigued by this western town, although I’d be hard pressed to explain. I am simultaneously repulsed, an equally inexplicable reaction.

In August 1998, a mere two months before Matthew Shepard’s death, we stayed here overnight during our move from Ithaca, New York, to Reedley, California. I cannot shake the eeriness of knowing that we were here and he was alive, preparing for another year of college.

I am drawn to Laramie’s beauty and history, but tonight, I am uneasy with the underside of both the history and the location. From the broken treaties of the 1851 council at Fort Laramie to the torture of Matthew Shepard, there have been many painful events. Laramie is much more than the sum of these negative events, but this too is part of its collective reality. Our world is filled with good people whose experiences have fostered a particular distrust and anger.

Over dinner Matthew tells us that he has already learned that the University of Wyoming students hate the WyoTech students and vice versa. It was one of the first things his new neighbors told him in their orientation for him, sandwiched between who throws good parties and where to buy a cheap DVD player.

Knowing college towns, I had warned Matthew about this. He had laughed and asked if I was saying that Laramie had gangs made of the technical school kids and college kids. I told him he could laugh, but I know a little about small college towns and about the human propensity to distinguish between “us” and “them.” Tonight I think aloud about this tendency.

Matthew responds with his own observation about human nature. “A person alone can be good,” he states, “but you put several people together and they always do bad things.”

I tell him that his observation has a history. In 1895, Gustav LeBon published The Crowd, a sociological study of the behavior of groups. Crowds, according to LeBon, are always unconscious, intellectually inferior, and unreasonable. However, he adds, a crowd can as easily be heroic as criminal. It depends on “the nature of the suggestion to which the crowd is exposed.”

I remind Matthew that it is also within groups that we can do our greatest good. We can come together like the Danes, nonviolently defying Hitler. We can build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Together, we can demand the right to vote or press for an end to war. For these things, we need collective action. Hopefully, we find community where “the nature of the suggestion” sets the pace for our best impulses.

At home, our peace rallies elicit a virulent opposition. We have been told to get out of our country and admonished to support the troops. One person informed us that God is not on the side of peace. But I also remember Rusty, who stepped out of the crowd to join our candlelight vigil.

“I came here,” Rusty told us, “to show support for the troops and to tell you you’re wrong. But instead I decided to join your circle because I believe you have a right to be here.”

These days, when I find hope it surprises me.

While we eat it starts to snow, and for 20 minutes we can barely see across the street. Once again, we hear that Interstate 80 is closed between Laramie and Cheyenne. CNN informs us that south of Baghdad, the wind is blowing the sand, obscuring the view and slowing the troops.

Doug and I leave Matt for a cup of hot tea at a Laramie coffeehouse before heading to Motel 6. Sitting there I try to put words to my anxiety. Looking at the people around me, I realize that there is a divide in our society that is, at least partly, an integral aspect of the U.S. war on Iraq. This seemingly insurmountable division shapes our faith, our views of the world, our relationships, and, ultimately, what we choose to believe about our war on Iraq.

In the coffeehouse there are antiwar posters on the message board and under the order counter. The décor is unique, but we could be along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley or in Takoma Park, Maryland. The sounds, the conversations, the clothing, and even the smells are familiar. If I began a tirade against our current president, I am sure most people would nod.

Yet if I went to buy a drink just a few blocks away, I would have to order an American beer and sit under a flag with a notice that “these colors don’t run.” I would be afraid to get into a political discussion and out of my personal comfort zone. So I’ll stay here, where I know what is acceptable, how much I am willing to risk.

The pro-/antiwar sentiments have roots in something I cannot comprehend. Understanding and communication come infrequently, and in slivers far too small.

I am sitting in my room at Motel 6. It’s 3 a.m. and I cannot sleep. As I worry, I send out a prayer for understanding; for Weldon’s healing; and for the people of Iraq. I begin to write by the street light that shines through the window. The crack of light awakens Doug, who turns on the television and CNN babbles in the background.

A reporter is talking about the terrorist-style fighting by the Iraqi soldiers, calling it uncivilized. While he talks, the scrolling message at the bottom of the screen reports that the war is going as planned, then asks the viewers, “How long do you think the war will last? Cast your vote at” Once again I think of the word surreal.

We live amid such complexity. Our history and our theology have created a mythology by which we live. I live by the stories of conscientious objection, others by stories of lives given for freedom. Phrases that seem meaningless to me have great importance for others.

My fears are running in high gear as the reality of the war comes to me through Weldon’s eyes, through my knowledge that he was there. I move from questions to worry, disbelief, and tears. I waver between quiet reflection and intense rage.

I have tried to share Weldon’s story but it is difficult. Reactions seem to be at one extreme or another, neither of which fits what I feel. Some people find his actions naïve or worse. Others believe his sacrifice is so noble. I am angry at both responses, unable to speak about it with any of those commenting no matter how they respond.

I have never felt more alone. I cannot make sense of my own reactions and that, too, frustrates me. There is no way to make sense of war. I feel helpless in the face of my terror, my anger, and the ambiguities.

My thoughts have become an incessant and obnoxious staccato amid CNN’s reports and my memory of slogans chanted in recent days. Human shields for Saddam. War is not the answer. Love it or leave it. No blood for oil. Freedom isn’t free. Pray for peace. God bless America. God bless the Iraqis. The price of freedom is written in blood. Support the troops. We do support the troops—we want them home.

It builds to a crescendo of meaningless words. I don’t expect to sleep tonight.

There is, I suppose, a glimmer of hope even though I have not felt it lately. I heard it when Rusty spoke at our vigil. I found it in the words of the Iraqi doctor who treated Weldon’s wounds—then waved away thanks by saying, “We’re all part of the same family.” I see it in anyone who, like my brother, is willing and able to face the chaos head on.

We want things to fit but they don’t. We want answers to be simple and they aren’t. We search for coherence when dissonance and ambiguity are the basis of everyday life. We declare our answers to be the right ones. It strains our goodwill to live together.

Maybe my own part (for now) is simply this: to listen more closely, to question lovingly, to support wholeheartedly, and to look for the ways to embrace the pain and step beyond my small circle of comfort. I do not expect it to be easy.

“Morning in America”

“Morning in America”

Journal of Mennonite Writing, v.5, no.1, January 2013

“Morning in America”

Journal of Mennonite Writing, v.5, no.1, January 2013

We opened the doors of St. Joseph’s Emergency Winter Shelter for Women and Children on a drizzly, dreary Saturday evening in January. Walking from the BART station to the shelter, I stumbled over the sad remains of New Years Eve celebrations, the streamers and confetti begging for a better year in 1986. By the time I arrived for my first night on the job, there was a line of women waiting impatiently. The first family in line was a hefty black woman and her two daughters anticipating a hot meal, beds, and protection from the rain.

Sandra pushed her way inside out of the cold with confident obliviousness to anyone else. Right behind her came her two daughters in their late teens, one carrying a baby. There is only one way to say it – Sandra was large and loud. It was impossible to ignore her presence or to mistake her voice. She lumbered into the shelter and filled the place in every way imaginable.

The younger daughter, Dahlia, was a formidable presence and exact image of her mother. Damaris was the polar opposite of her mother and sister in both size and aura. Damaris’ newborn daughter, Jailah, was two months old and she weighed a scant seven pounds.

That evening and each of the following evenings, Sandra and Dahlia would sign in and then dump their “goods” on their cots. They joked loudly and displayed their wares proudly. They were the first in line for food and the last to go bed. They didn’t just live at the shelter, they dominated it. Damaris spent her evenings in the corner rocking Jailah in a hickory rocker that a St. Joseph parishioner had donated especially for her.

Something about my name struck Dahlia funny. “What got into your mama to name you Hope?” she would ask. In turn, I would comment about being named for a flower. She’d snort back at me, “A flower is better than hope. Who has hope?” Many evenings she would follow me around the shelter murmuring my name over and over. “Hope, Hope, Hope, Hope,” she would repeat and when I asked her to stop she found that even funnier than my name.

When not with her mother and sister, Damaris talked quietly about finishing high school, perhaps going to college. She was interested in strange facts in history and she liked reading. She had just finished The Color Purple, and she told me how much she loved Anne of Green Gables when she was younger. “Did you know,” Damaris asked me one night, “that Hitler’s mother wanted an abortion and her doctor talked her out of it? Just think how different things might have been if she had done what she wanted?”

Damaris even thought about writing some stories herself, but she didn’t want to use the notebooks that her mother and Dahlia stole from the drugstore. Humiliated by the antics of her family, Damaris had little energy or knowledge of how to break the ties and move out on her own. Her family was all she had, but now with a baby daughter she was just beginning to look at things in a new light. Jailah renewed her dream that she might do something different with her life.

In the two years that I worked at St. Joe’s, I saw Sandra and Dahlia several times, but I never saw Damaris again. They shrugged disinterestedly when I asked about Damaris. The last time they came, Sandra responded to my question with, “Damaris who?”

If ever there was a woman who fit the image of President Reagan’s “welfare queen,” it was Sandra. Dahlia was only a decade or two behind her mother in both experience and effort. Neither one drove the requisite Cadillac or had an income of $150,000. Those eyebrow-raising details were Reagan’s embellishment. From his first mention of the welfare queen in the 1976 primary race, Reagan clung to his story, reviving it with renewed fervor during his presidency. The image struck a nerve in the post-civil rights, middle-class, white America, and the icon fixed itself in the collective imagination.

Welfare and welfare fraud had long been viewed as a minority issue; with Reagan’s words, the target became both race- and gender-specific. The media could not locate and verify this black woman on welfare with numerous wigs, a myriad of identities, too many children, and a Cadillac. Even so, Reagan’s anecdote had a panache that grated it a long and illustrious life.

Many Americans came to despise this mythical person who could live so high while ignoring our values and our work ethic. With public support, welfare was cut and housing assistance reduced. Reagan appointed developers and bankers to sit on the national task force on housing. In the preceding decades, there was an increasing de-institutionalization of the mentally ill. With many causes, homelessness was on the rise in the 1980s. On Good Morning America, Reagan told us that the homeless were homeless by choice. Places like St. Joe’s were springing up everywhere in a feeble effort to get people off the streets.

Sandra and Dahlia left a wake of debris in their path across the East Bay. They didn’t have a six-figure income, but they had a Santa-Claus sized garbage bag filled with high-end clothes, shoes, cans of tuna, purses, calculators, Tylenol, and much more. En masse, the neighborhood around St. Joseph’s shelter descended on the parish office to register its anger and intolerance. Within a day of our opening and the arrival of Sandra, the grocery store, drug store and the public library reported on Sandra and Dahlia’s swath of shoplifting and general mayhem. St. Joe’s ongoing existence was at risk. We immediately implemented a new rule. Anything that a client brought into the shelter must have an accompanying receipt.

Sandra was one of the long-term homeless, a woman who had figured out how to work a system that had screwed her. With her blatant disregard of society’s values and her rough manner, her very presence proved and disproved points on all sides of the issue. Sandra led my first class in Homelessness 101.

When I accepted this job offer to work at a shelter for homeless women and children in the East Bay near Oakland, California, I had no idea what was to come. My life in the Bay Area was chaotic and exciting in ways I had never known before. In addition to the shelter job (which would provide more excitement than I really desired) my cousin Jill and I, along with two other friends, lived in a cheap apartment near Lake Merritt with a certifiably crazy landlady who had just gotten out of prison for burning down another one of her apartment buildings. During the day, my friends and I battled our Psycho-Landlady; at night, I struggled through the drama and trauma of one of the San Francisco Bay homeless shelters.

Jill and I had moved to Oakland from Iowa in our post-college aimless wanderings. Armed with high ideals, a relatively compassionate heart (or so I thought having grown up with a religious community that valued service and compassion as a woman’s rightful goals in life), and (most importantly) a need for a job, I began to work in what turned out to be one of my most difficult jobs of my life. My high ideals were quickly tempered by this new experience. Working at a shelter messed with my mind, my self-perception and my world view. I quickly learned that people didn’t always like me despite my best efforts. I had to be much more aggressive than I wanted to be. I discovered that compassion is seldom sufficient for such a job and that dreams of justice cannot always be realized. Working at the shelter even turned me into a temporary smoker.

Becoming an intake counselor in a homeless shelter wasn’t exactly what I had planned for my life. It was true that in the distant past of my high school days I had said that I wanted to be a social worker, but I had long since abandoned that goal. It took a while to acknowledge that I really did not want to “work with people,” as I had blithely stated to my high school guidance counselor. Despite the counselor’s assurances to the contrary, my choices didn’t appear to be infinite. While opportunities for a college education were slowly emerging in my Conservative Mennonite community, the most easily justified course of study was in a service profession. It was acceptable to think about becoming a nurse, a teacher, or a social worker. Not one of those careers appealed to me. I had agonized over this decision for a number of years before enrolling at the University of Iowa to study history.

It did not take long to discover that an undergraduate degree in history provided little in the way of great job prospects. As a result, I worked at a series of low-paying, unfulfilling jobs: home health care aide, typing scientific reports for a translator, retail research for a marketing firm. All the while, I kept looking for something better, something that gave me more than a paycheck. I wanted meaning and purpose.

This was the decade that President Reagan had declared to be “Morning in America.” It began with double-digit inflation and would end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In between it included a war on drugs, the emergence of crack babies, and the Year of the Yuppie. It spawned aid concerts such as Live Aid and Farm Aid, which brought out celebrities to urge us to sing “We are the World.” We repeated disparate slogans from “Where’s the Beef?” to “Just Say No,” to “Shop ‘till you Drop.” Depending upon our world view or place in life, our bumper stickers read “Baby on Board,” “Save Mono Lake,” “The Moral Majority is Neither,” or “No Contra Aid.” The decade brought us Donald Trump, Ivan Boesky, Oliver North, and Leona Helmsley.

But during this decade we also had Mitch Snyder and Carol Fennelly to admire. I had been reading about Mitch and his work for the homeless in Washington, D.C. when a friend at Catholic Social Services called to tell me they were opening a temporary shelter for homeless women and children in a nearby city. I applied and, to my surprise, got the job with no experience or understanding of what this would entail. That was how I found myself working the overnight shift at a temporary shelter for little pay and too much drama.

My lack of experience and my idealism was, in retrospect, a hidden blessing. I might have run the other way if I’d have known. In any case, that was how I came to work with a Catholic parish providing shelter for homeless women and their children. What I found when I walked into that shelter each night was “Morning in America” on the ground. Here I met Sandra, the welfare queen, and all the others who were desperately seeking shelter amid crumbling lives and a struggling economy.

She walked through the door, down the hall, toward the kitchen-turned-office where I awaited our clients each evening. Her long, tangled, black hair framed a leathery, brown face, but how much was dirt and what was merely skin toughened by life in the open air, was anyone’s best guess. Eyes darting from side to side, she surveyed the hallway, the people who were milling around waiting for dinner, and finally — me. Involuntarily, I almost took a step backwards. The look she projected was concentrated, forceful, almost feral.

Looking into her filmy eyes and filthy face, I swallowed my uneasiness and began the intake process. Her name was Linda, but beyond that I could get very little information. It was difficult to the point of impossible to assess Linda’s needs and provide referrals. The intake interview was often a game of reading between the lines and deciphering body language or state of the eyes; with Linda it was an absolute guessing game. Her race/ethnicity, reasons for being homeless, SSI/income information – all of it was a lost cause.

Even in my inexperience and naiveté I knew that I might be risking a lot (even my job) if I allowed her to stay for the night, but I couldn’t tell her to leave either. As a temporary shelter, we had no bathing facilities. I gave her a washcloth and towel and showed her the bathroom.

All evening, Linda sat in the hallway rocking back and forth on a creaking folding chair, muttering indecipherably. The other residents kept their distance. Linda’s words, when I could catch them, were random and intriguing and bizarre, but lacked any context or meaning. “… mumble, mumble … alabaster … m-mumble, mumble … murky … m-m-m-m-m … never ever … mumble … cake … running.”

Her muttering continued nonstop, but conversation was impossible. Her eyes rarely met mine and when they did, her gaze revealed no indication that she saw me. I could have been gazing into the eyes of a rainbow trout for all the response and recognition that I was garnering. Linda paced the hallway, would seldom lie down, rarely sat on the edge of her cot. I explained to her the rules about lights out and quiet times; she never acknowledged my words and continued to murmur throughout the night.

In one way, Linda inspired less fear than most. A mother with several children could look like any of us. Linda could not. Linda just looked – crazy. The desire not to be near her was not fear, but revulsion. No one wanted her near them. Even the children, normally relatively uninhibited, avoided contact with Linda. But despite the revulsion that she inspired, Linda didn’t make anyone feel that this could be them. Linda sat alone and that was how she seemed to want it to remain. Shelter activity swirled around her with its normal chaos. She never noticed.

Several days later, Linda solved the problem of what to do with her in the shelter. She simply evicted herself and left as quickly as she had arrived, without referrals for mental health care, without assistance in obtaining other shelter.

At 10:30 on her last evening, she came to my desk and stood staring. Only she wasn’t glaring at me. She was glowering at her image in the mirror behind me. “You,” she thundered, “you have been v-e-e-r-r-r-y bad.” She stomped her foot to emphasize the point. “You cannot live with civilized people. There are good people here and small children too.”

Her brief, choppy speech was as much coherence as I had ever heard from her, the first time she actually seemed to see me. The next thing I knew, she fixed her crooked grin on me, swiped her hair behind her ear and took hold of her left sleeve with her right hand saying, “Would you like me to remove her for you?” Without waiting for an answer, she escorted herself down the hall and out the back door. She left behind a crumpled napkin on the desk for me, a napkin with a drawing of a wild-haired woman sitting at a desk with a straight-laced figure that was (obviously) me.

One Sunday morning a month later when I got off work, my friend Doug and I walked up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley on our way to Café Mediterranean. We carried our Oakland Tribune and bought a San Francisco Chronicle. Sipping our coffee, awaiting pancakes and French toast, and soaking up the early spring sunshine, we handed the various sections of the newspaper back and forth. When I finally reached the arts and leisure section, I stared in disbelief. There in the bottom right corner were two paintings of a sad looking woman who could have hailed from Picasso’s blue period.

A brief article described a homeless woman whose oil paintings were sweeping the art scene of San Francisco. The article identified this particular artist, recognizable by her self-portrait, as Rose Linda. The dreamy, surreal quality of the painting could not hide the artist’s identity. It was Linda-from-the-shelter, the woman who had evicted herself. The words of the article were almost as unbelievable and incoherent as Linda’s own words that she muttered in the darkened halls of St. Joe’s.

Over the years I have searched for her name and her work, but she has disappeared. Perhaps there is a painting hanging in a gallery somewhere, but if so, I have not found it. She was, perhaps, merely a brief trend, the attention paid to her one way to soothe some consciences in a growing disparity of wealth. Not even Google, our twenty-first century, find-everything-tool has led me to further information. Rose Linda has vanished and all I have is a newspaper clipping with which to remember her.

My supervisor and co-workers were every bit as interesting as our clients. There were not many of us; David was the parish deacon, the one who directed the shelter from afar, worked with the financial end of the endeavor. He popped in from time to time to see how things were going. His underlying kindness offset his brusque manner and intolerance for any deviation from his version of “The Right Path.”

Aaron was the hands-on director who had been helping launch shelters for at least a decade, even though he was just into his 30s. A descendent of Hawaiian royalty, he taught us phrases in Hawaiian, played his ukulele for the children, and watched out for the staff as well as for the clients. When I had a cyst removed from the top of my head, his eagle-eyes noticed immediately and he asked me numerous times how I got those stitches. He was as vigilant in his efforts to determine the believability of my story as he was with any of the clients. He had adapted to the milieu of shelter life such that he saw everyone as a potential victim of abuse.

Besides myself, there were two other intake counselors: Leah and Sharon. Leah had spent the previous several years running from her own batterer. With an MSW and her experience as a battered woman, she was the most knowledgeable – and also the most volatile – of the staff. She was edgy, irritable and ever-vigilant for the appearance of her former husband. This was the man who had followed her from one side of the United States to the other, forcing her and her teenage daughter into a nomadic life. The Bay Area was their fifth location since leaving him. Leah took her nervous alertness out on the other intake counselors. In retrospect, it is easy to recognize PTSD, but the terminology was less than a decade old at the time.

Sharon was an activist working on two key peace and justice causes: advocating for homeless women and protesting nuclear testing. She spent much of her off-time sitting at the gate to the Nevada test site. As long as she was on staff, I was safe from Leah because Sharon was the butt of Leah’s anger and hatred. After Leah forced Sharon to leave, she unleashed her anger on me. I was an easy target, an idealistic and naïve Midwestern transplant who (I’ll be the first to admit) made lots of errors in judgment. Why she had not chosen me first, over Sharon, is still a mystery. Perhaps she thought I would be more malleable, more open to her efforts to teach and mold.

Our shelter was not specifically for battered women, but over time we saw many who were homeless because they were fleeing an abuser. Shelters for victims of domestic violence were a relatively recent phenomenon and they were underfunded in the face of a growing demand. Leah, of course, recognized abuse the most readily of the three of us. On more than one occasion, we admitted a battered woman who could not find an opening at a hidden shelter. We accepted each one with fear and trepidation. Only once did the batterer also come to the door in search for his victim, but the likelihood was an ever-present fear.

There was so much to learn at the shelter and so little preparation. On-the-job training was good only in that it provided real life examples of textbook knowledge. The constant flow of people required many split-second decisions: who should be admitted or refused admittance, who should be evicted, or when to call Child Protective Services. At first it wasn’t easy to differentiate between a behavior that was a drug reaction and one that indicated mental illness. Then, too, there was always a third possibility, that the behavior was street-induced idiosyncrasy emanating from the stress of raising children without a roof or daily food. With almost every decision that I made, I harbored the belief that I was making the wrong move. In that one assumption, I was usually right.

When Patricia arrived with her five quiet, delightful and obedient daughters, I was drawn to her resolute nature and her desire to make a life for her girls even in the shelter chaos. She tended them lovingly and spoke as if she had some education. She had been a legal assistant for a lawyer, but lost her job when he had been indicted for non-payment of taxes. Before she could locate another job, she was evicted from her apartment and the six of them were out on the streets. The daughters ranged in age from 4 to 15 and they all watched out for each other while they kept up with their homework. There was no fighting among this bunch, no back talk to their mother.

Every resident had four weeks to stay at the shelter and if at that time they were “on track” by shelter standards we granted them an additional two weeks. During their residency they received the appropriate referrals and free bus passes to get to appointments. Patricia appeared to be the “most likely to succeed”, the first one who would be able to get back on her feet and out of the cycle of poverty and homelessness. She dutifully went to every appointment to keep up her AFDC payments, worked on her resume, and came home to the shelter to encourage her daughters that they would have a home again soon. They followed the rules and kept their bedroom area neat and tidy. She was the antithesis of the Reagan Welfare Queen; her daughters did not fit the identity of poorly behaving, underachieving kids on the street.

One evening the five daughters led by Keisha, the 15 year old, filed in the door and to my desk to sign in for the night. I assumed that Patricia was just a few steps behind them. Fifteen minutes later, it occurred to me that I had not yet seen her and I went in search of Keisha to ask where her mother was.

“I don’t know,” Keisha answered my query. “I haven’t seen mama all day. She was going to the drugstore for some Nyquil for Baby Girl and she didn’t come back to the park where we were waiting.”

My questions elicited nothing more from the girls. They watched Keisha and let her do all the talking. Not one of the five acted like this was out of the ordinary nor appeared to be frightened, but I didn’t catch that salient fact until later. The shelter rule was that no child was to be admitted without their mother, but these were Patricia’s girls. I couldn’t send Patricia’s girls into the cold, not even if it meant the warm car of a CPS worker. Surely Patricia would be here soon.

But Patricia didn’t come. Throughout the night I considered the options, but remained worried and perplexed, certain only that Patricia would be back for her girls and that all would be well. There would be a reasonable explanation. The wait was agonizing. It was nearly morning before I received a phone call from the police stating that Patricia was in the hospital. Someone had found her tied in a tree in a park in the Oakland hills. She was dehydrated, badly bruised, and had multiple serious lacerations. They told me that someone would bring her to the shelter the following evening. That was all the information they could provide.

In the morning I handed the girls their daily bus passes along with an extra hug. Tonight they would be back together in the shelter, back on the road toward self-sufficiency – the one that led to a job and an apartment. I was far too distressed and worried to go home and sleep for the morning. Instead, I got off BART at Lake Merritt and wandered around the gardens on the roof of the Oakland Museum.

When I got to the shelter that night, Aaron and Leah were both there. Leah’s pursed lips indicated trouble. “What the hell were you thinking by not calling CPS last night to get Patricia’s daughters?” she demanded. Aaron’s approach was kinder. “Do you understand what happened?” he asked me. He sent Leah off to finish the evening intakes that would have been mine to do. He explained that it was not a random act of violence that left Patricia tied to a tree in a park. She often left her daughters to go off with strange men – this time with two strange men. What began as a mutual tryst ended in serious assault.

So what did I know? I had no training and I had lived a life where what you saw was, for the most part, what was true. In the shelter, “truth” took on a whole new dimension. Truth was survival and survival might require distortions of truth and alterations of fact. I never got used to the constant need to separate fact from fiction. Sometimes it didn’t matter; more often it did. There was always, or so it seemed to me, such a fine line between truth and fabrication. And I wanted to believe people, in their innate goodness and worth.

Nights spent worrying over what this drug addict would do, or whether that mother was abusing her kid, moments of frustration over who had stolen the bus passes helped eliminate some of my naiveté. When 3-year-old Jasmine came to the shelter with a clear hand imprint on her face, it was easy enough to determine the course of action, no matter what her mother reported. But when someone’s children were running amok through the shelter, while the attempts of their mother (which seemed like honest efforts to me) brought no positive changes in behavior it was difficult to determine whether she just needed a referral to parenting classes or if this was the point of eviction. And the shadow hanging over all my decisions was the knowledge that as a childless woman with a place to call home, how could I possibly understand the travails of child-rearing without the benefit of four comforting walls and three square meals a day? As for Patricia, I still find it hard to accept that she brought this on herself.

In the bigger picture, however, I was not attempting to build long-term relationships with anyone so I could move on and leave it behind. Patricia’s daughters went into foster care and Patricia went to drug rehab. I missed them, but there were other clients coming and other decisions to make.

The “crack epidemic”, which was on the minds of most Americans at the time, was in full swing. In retrospect, the epidemic was largely manufactured by the media, in part due to the racial make-up of its primary users. We saw some crack users at the shelter. More frightening than crack, however, was the effect of PCP, the drug with more white users and less media coverage.

The first time I saw it, I didn’t recognize it. All I knew was that there was a wild-eyed woman standing in the shelter doorway along with her four daughters. They had been at the shelter a week already. Her husband slept in the car with their one son who was over 13 and, therefore, too old to be admitted to the shelter. Tonight the husband walked her to the door, reluctant to leave her side. I let her in despite a clear sense that something wasn’t right.

Carol’s eyes were taking in everything down the shelter hallway, moving with unusual speed from object to person, all around the place. Her daughters refused to leave her side. One of them told me that their dad had given them strict instructions to take care of her. What he thought they could do, I will never know. Against shelter policy, he stood in the doorway trying to get my attention hoping for permission to come in. When I insisted that he leave, he left reluctantly.

In the end, Carol didn’t do much other than stay awake all night and try to maintain intense conversations on random topics. She did not sleep. After lights out, she paced the hallway and smoked continuously. Occasionally she stopped to sit on her bed briefly. Her daughters also refused to sleep. Her most extreme act was to stand on a chair and sing a made-up song about flying. She got down when I asked her to, but she kept swinging chairs above her head while singing other strange lyrics. At one point she tried to lift Julia, another client who was a bit overweight. It almost started a fist fight, but Julia maintained her best judgment, recognized the futility of any response, and left the room to calm down. “That is one messed up white bitch,” Julia told me in the kitchen.

I wrote my report and, of course, got chewed out by Leah the next night. This one, I’ll admit, was understandable. If it had not been for the four daughters, I would never have let her stay. It strained my best judgment and good will to think about throwing them all into the streets, but I knew I should have done it. When Leah yelled her perennial question at me, “What the hell were you thinking?” the question had an edge of un-reality and even stupidity no matter how warranted it was.

We officially banished Carol from the shelter for at least six months and Aaron made me tell her. Her husband stormed around the shelter after I barred her entrance. I never liked calling the police, but this was one time when I did it without hesitation.

Life with Leah continued to be problematic. She would come in smiling and chummy one night and the next time she would be filled with anger over one of my mistakes. She bent policy as she saw fit, then castigated me for not understanding the rules. At first I made the mistaken assumption that she always made the right decision. It wasn’t long before she began a relationship with Aaron and he spent his time trying to keep everyone calm and happy. The weekend when Leah thought that her former abuser had found her once again, we all rallied around her and stood ready to call the police if necessary.

One evening they called before I left home for the night shift and ask me to stop at the hospital a pick up an 18-year old on the verge of being discharged. Monica had attempted suicide to get away from her mother and boyfriend. She had spent most of her childhood in serious danger from both of them. This was her “way out.” Monica was not talkative, but she came with me willingly and her body language did not exude anger or belligerence. I did her intake and gave her a bed in the singles’ room.

Around midnight Monica came to the desk and asked to sit with me for a while. She told me that she was scared and a bit frustrated. “Sometimes my therapist lets me tear newspapers into strips,” she told me. “It helps relieve some pressure inside me. And my pressure is up to here.” Monica pointed to her throat.

“Well,” I told her, “I’ll see what I can find. I think we have some newspapers here.” I handed her the day’s issue of the Oakland Tribune, and sat back. She tore them with relish and then together we cleaned up the mess.

“Okay,” she told me, “I think I can sleep now.” She returned to her cot and I wrote up the episode in the night notes.

I didn’t even make it through sleep at home the next morning. Leah called and was enraged with me for letting Monica tear the paper. “Of all the stupid things you’ve done, that was the stupidest,” she hurled at me through the phone. “You aren’t a therapist. Who knows what might have happened when Monica unleashed her anger. You wouldn’t have been able to handle it if it had gone wrong.” I hadn’t seen it as therapy, only as a release valve instigated by Monica herself.

I assured Leah that I had learned something, and life at the shelter went back to – not exactly normal, but to the usual routine. Other clients came and went. Some came and went several times. Like any encounter with other people, I loved some, tolerated some, despised others. The aging lesbian with weathered brown skin and looked like a man became a good friend. I met her son and granddaughter (who were not homeless) and we shared cups of coffee at the local women’s bookstore. As I learned to get tough with problem clients, she called me “Butch” and we talked long into the night while she was at St. Joe’s.

There were some surprises, such as the business executive who came to the shelter in a suit and carrying a briefcase. Unemployed and having lost all savings, she was one of the temporary ones. She spent more time going to job interviews than most of the women and within a month she found one. Then it was only a matter of finding an apartment. She stayed a little longer than most as she got back on her feet. True “success stories” were not often this forthcoming.

Then there was the large black woman who had two daughters and one son. Ebony and Ivory were both as blue-black as she was, while little Jimmy was the palest little blond boy with ice-blue eyes I have ever have seen. He called her “mommy.” Melinda’s only explanation was, “This is my brother’s boy.”

I had the painful task of turning away the woman whose only problem was that she had a fourteen-year-old son and no one to care for him. Being over 13, we couldn’t admit him to a women’s shelter and so she find other options – “other options” likely meaning the streets. Despite all my efforts, I could not find an opening for them that night in any other shelter up and down the East Bay.

I listened to the residents share tips with each other about where to get cheap or free kids’ shoes and how to navigate the lines at the AFDC office. I watched while they gave the neediest among them a favorite blouse or a dollar for coffee later in the day and helped each other get to the bus on time. I watched weekly ethereal mini-communities build and diminish as residents arrived and departed. I also saw how rapidly the delicate bonds of affinity faded when the same people who watched out for each other turned on each other in the heat of the night.

We sang Mele Kalikimaka while we decorated a Christmas tree, we doled out the daily bus passes, and we ate our evening goulash and morning Cheerios together. The staff worked without pay for several weeks when the funding dried up and the parish had to find more. We rejoiced when our three-month shelter turned into a permanent one. Everyone was constantly exhausted and on the verge of burn-out, while we struggled to maintain our humanity in the face of exceeding odds.

This was truly the hardest job I ever loved. And I would never do it again.

Stories have a strange way of twisting around and conflating time, creating connections in odd times and places. Doug and I got married and graduate school took us across the country to College Park, Maryland. While in Maryland, we chose to adopt two children, a brother and sister who had spent much of their lives in the foster care system. They were eight and ten at the time.

Reading through my children’s social service files was an exercise in déjà vu. From home to shelter to foster care and back home again their life story, as laid out in case worker notes, was painful and erratic. When I got to the part where they had lived in a homeless shelter with their mother, I stopped. I had to catch my breath before I could read further. This narrative was straight out of my own past — but from the other side of the fence. The uncanny part was that it contained an incident right here in Prince Georges County, Maryland that had occurred at the exact time when I was working at the shelter in the Bay Area on the West Coast.

The file noted that the children, along with their mother, had been evicted by the shelter because “this mother does not appear to be capable of controlling her children. Furthermore,” the caseworker’s handwriting scrawled its way contemptuously across the page, “it appears that this is not the first time it happened. This shelter has refused to let them back in unless this mother agrees to parenting classes.”

As I sit in that stifling little cubicle in the blocky, brick, depressing social services building, I look up to see the spring cherry blossoms outside the window. The caseworker pokes her head in to remind me that I don’t have much more time. I nod to her and close my eyes. In my mind I see my two children at the tender young ages of two and four. I picture them walking into St. Joseph’s Shelter for Homeless Women and Children. I observe while they, along with their mother, walk down the long hallway toward the intake desk, toward me. I listen in on the conversation while I ask their mother the usual intake questions. All the while, her children are cavorting wildly around the desk completely out of control and making a mess of papers, trashcan, and the cups on the counter. With each crash of something else falling, I feel the pain all over again as I try to figure out the best move to make, second-guessing myself. But now it isn’t about me and my decision anymore, it is about my children and where they will sleep tonight.

I see two smiling, resilient-but-damaged children who have lived through life’s chaos and spent time in a homeless shelter. The children are part of me now and not just the offspring of some nameless woman on the other side of the desk. All I can do is hold my breath and wait for the grip to relax its hold on my chest.

“Reading to Unit H”

“Reading to Unit H”

The Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, v.6, #1, Spring/Summer 2018

“Reading to Unit H”

The Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, v.6, #1, Spring/Summer 2018

I push the buzzer and wait for the click that let’s me know I can open the heavy-framed, locked door. The click is so faint, however, that I miss it (as usual) and I am forced to wait a minute before I can try again.

Not knowing what force monitors this door, all I can do is turn subserviently toward the camera to reveal my badge with reads “Probation Department, County of Fresno, Volunteer.” I picture someone watching me with a bit of malevolent, power-driven glee, making sure that I must try a second time. Even in the absence of an actual evil chortle I get a shivery surge of impatience, mixed with anxiety when I stand here. My mind’s picture, is of course, made up but no less real for being a figment of my imagination.

This is the most daunting part of my bi-monthly visits to Unit H of Juvenile Hall. The clanking thud of doors swinging shut and locking behind me is bad enough, but this anticipation of the nearly-imperceptible click makes me want to turn and run. It is only when I am through the door and on the ward with the boys that I can relax.

It is 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night and I am here to read to the boys of Unit H. The boys in this unit are the youngest ones in Juvenile Hall. When I went for an orientation session, the activity director gave me a choice: girls, ages 13-18; boys, ages 13-18; or the youngest ward, the pre-teen boys. 

“Do you have many kids,” I ask, “who are younger than 13?”

“Lots!” She laughed at my question. “We’ve had them as young as 7.”

While I absorbed this surprising bit of information, she continued, “Some are in legal trouble, of course. Others are here because their family tells us that their kid is out of control and they don’t know what else to do. Some are good kids who just need a little discipline. Others,” she paused and shuddered, “they’re just … evil.”

My discomfort with her description must have been visible because she continued emphatically, “I mean it! Some are just bad kids. Like that movie … what’s it called? Bad Seed.”

Thinking of my own son who spent some time here, I wondered what kind of training is required to work here.

As I enter the visitation room of Unit H, I say hi to the three boys who are cleaning this common area. All three smile at me and continue to work at breakneck speed. The rest of the boys are already in bed. By the time I check in with the desk attendant and am ready to walk onto the ward, these three boys will be finished mopping and will bring their buckets and mops onto the ward, where they will mop between beds and around me, while I walk the floor juggling book and flashlight. Tonight I’ll read from Call it Courage, a book that held their attention last time.

A night attendant greets me then hollers to the boys, “Reading lady is here. Everyone quiet.” For better or worse, that’s how I’m known here: Reading Lady.

These boys have to be here. They have to be quiet and listen while I read bedtime stories to these pre-teenagers whose temporary home is Juvenile Hall.

I make a modest attempt to interact with them before I begin to read. I say hello and ask if there was anything special about their day. I follow it with, “Who remembers what we were reading last time?” There is a chorus in response telling me that many of them have been here at least two weeks.

One boy calls out, “Ma’am? Last time I was here you were reading Holes. Why aren’t you still reading Holes?” It has been a year since I finished Holes, which means this is at least his second round through Juvenile Hall. I tell him that we’ve moved on to another book and he groans his disappointment, finishing with, “I loved Holes.” I know. Even the attendants liked when I read Holes

I open Call it Courage, while their voices float out of the darkness with details from the last time. “Mafatu killed the wild boar just before it attacked him.” And “Yeah! I remember. Wasn’t he in the water?”

This is the moment that I love, the reason I am here reading to these young boys who have transgressed in some way against the community or their family.


Reading with my son Matthew always was an adventure, the part of parenting that I loved the most, the part of the day that he, too, relished. No matter what happened during the day, reading was our moment of respite. Bedtime stories slowed our chaotic days to a contented crawl. In a way, Matthew is part of the reason why I am here now, reading to the boys of Unit H.

Life with Matthew has always been journey of exploration, of hope, and (at times) of the loss of hope. As I am reading here to Unit H, he is in a prison over 1000 miles from here. His letters are long and neatly penciled, at times terse and full of information, at other times rambling with dreams and desires. From time to time, he reassures me, “It’s not so bad in here. No one is raping or beating anyone.” Although that is not my greatest fear, it is how he believes outsiders view prison life, harvested from scenes in movies or TV shows. In one particularly pensive missive, he ruminated, “People aren’t meant to live this way, penned up and with so little light.”

In his latest letter, he wrote, “I got a letter from Uncle Wendell. He said I should visit when I get out. Why would he want me to visit? He knows what I’ve done. Why would he want that? I’ll never get this about family.”

Even at it’s best, family can be fragile. Both Matthew and his sister spent years in foster care, so for them (and by default, also for me) family hangs by an even thinner thread. The process of parenting vulnerable children has made me acutely attuned to the minute nuances of familial dynamics and the rougher edges of life, to what it is that creates the differences that divide and the love that unites.

My children hold in their bodies the most intimate knowledge of how easily family is damaged, how difficult to repair. My childhood on an Iowa farm with a loving Mennonite family did not prepare me for some parts of this new recognition. I am grateful for the foundation that my family provided, the hope that people can live together in a broken and hurting world. Over time, I have come to understand just how illogical it is for Matthew to believe that family might be able to embrace him—even in prison. I can only hope that one day, he will not only believe it, but feel it deep within himself.

With personal histories of pacifism my husband Douglas and I intended to maintain a family structure that breathed nonviolence and love. Our emerging family, however, holds a self-definition of the most extreme turbulence. This was their story, but now it is part of our story. We tried to live our beliefs without excessive preaching, but our children (with their own brand of street wisdom) doubted it, doggedly pointed out our flaws in living it, and occasionally were fascinated by it despite their skepticism. Life had demonstrated the impossibility of peace. They expended a tiring and unbelievable amount of energy attempting to re-create the familiarity of violence.

In spite of my best intentions, I acquiesced to my own inner violence more times than I care to admit, while we set out to demonstrate that family lasts forever and nonviolence is possible. With a family narrative rife with chaos, the intimacy of daily life counteracted our best efforts. So, in the colloquialism of our bumper-sticker culture, “Shit Happens.” But love grew anyway, flying in the face of our efforts to prove anything. And that, ultimately, is the best definition that I have for “nonviolence” or for “family.”

It is within this framework, nestled within our attempts to care for each other and failing often, that bedtime stories became our keystone to family life and peace. In those moments, chaos could subside, if only for a brief window, and we began to shape a new story together. We lost ourselves to this emerging family landscape. It may have resembled a Salvador Dali scene rather than a Norman Rockwell family. But it was ours and it was good.

While we read, Matthew changed from an 8-year old who could not sit still through a picture book to a 10-year old who understood the complexity of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. My son, this wiry little boy who nearly burned our house down, who kicked out the porch posts in anger, was the same child who came to love farm stories and time travel and historical fiction and, really, almost anything.

Books anchored us. So when I say that I believe in the power of story, in the possibility of nonviolence, and in the permanence of family, it is not merely an idle cliché. It comes from a place deep inside where I know that the impossible is within reach, if for only a few minutes duration at bedtime.


As I enter Unit H, I notice the nurse. A boy stands at her medicine cart, shaking and crying. The nurse addresses him by his last name. “Now Mr. Jackson,” he says gently, “I can’t give you sleeping pills. But I have a Tylenol for your headache. Mr. Jackson … can you look at me?”

The boy doesn’t look up and the nurse repeats, “Mr. Jackson?” The boy reluctantly lifts his tear-streaked face. The nurse tries to get him to relax by wiggling his arms at his side, but the child is stiff with fear. He sobs quietly, “I want to go home.”

The night attendant asks me to wait a moment while he quiets the boys. Evidently, it is not just “Mr. Jackson” who is agitated tonight. “Must be the full moon,” the attendant laughs, but his chuckle reflects little humor.

At times, I doubt the value of reading bedtime stories to the boys of Unit H. I volunteered, quite honestly, for my own satisfaction. I don’t believe it will change lives. Often, I am unsure that they even want this story hour. My stories are simply another thing inflicted upon them by a world of adults with inordinate power over them. If I really hoped to make a difference, there might be better options available. This, however, is what I do twice a month, forty minutes a night. I read bedtime stories to the youngest boys of Juvenile Hall.

I begin to read while I balance the book and the flashlight, walking the length of the ward and back again. Projecting my all-too-quiet voice reminds me of my limitations here. Some boys are uninterested. It won’t change their lives. Many will return to Juvenile Hall more than once, perpetrators of crimes and blinded to possibilities in their worlds of violence. And too often, all we see when we look at them are “bad seeds.”

After I finish the next several chapters of Call It Courage, I make my usual final sweep of the ward, saying good night to any boy who is still awake. I promise to return with more of Mafatu’s story in several weeks. I hear a few snores, some quiet “goodnight ma’ams,” a thank you or two. In this moment, as I round the ward I see, not troubled young boys, but innocent children who love a good bedtime story.

As I get to the door and begin to move into the light of the staff station, I hear a whisper near my head, “Thank you for reading to me tonight.” I turn to the bed on my right. On the top bunk beside me, I see the teary-eyed face of “Mr. Jackson.” Whispering good night, I add, “Sweet dreams.” He repeats his thank you and lays his head back down on the pillow.


When I told Matthew that I am reading to Unit H, he reminded me of a few books we had shared. “Don’t forget Harris and Me,” he prompted. “That was one of the best ones.”

As a child, Matthew struggled to read. Testing revealed no learning disabilities. Finally, one consultant explained how external trauma can prohibit the transferal of learning from short-term to long-term memory. In essence, each time he read, he was re-learning how to read. As difficult as it was, he loved to learn and loved to be read to. For a time, he even wanted to become a writer, encouraged by a teacher who said he had a knack for understanding the format and arc of a story.

He asked me to send books to the prison library. In his first months there, he had perused the entire prison collection, a bunch of old National Geographic magazines, plus a few mystery and spy novels. I spent an afternoon at bookstore, carefully selecting a box of books to send. I took his suggestion (science fiction) and added a few more: Orson Scott Card, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a Philip K. Dick novel about time flowing backward, Stephen King’s On Writing, plus a few more.

While I browsed, I thought of Matthew, but I also thought of other inmates, men I will never know, who would also have access to these books. Could a good book in a prison library point the way toward unimagined and unimaginable possibilities? I have no way of knowing.

When the prison received the box, Matthew called to thank me. His cell-mate, Milky, sent his thanks, too. As it turned out, Milky loved to read. When Matthew told him how difficult he finds reading, Milky offered to read to him. By the time he called me, they had already finished several books.

I, personally, don’t know how to define and live words like “family” and “nonviolence.” Society, collectively, stumbles over “justice” and “equality.” The fluidity of life, along with variables of class, culture, ethnicity, and gender often render definitions inadequate.

Life experiences have rearranged my hopes, just as they have limited my children’s dreams. I see the (rotting) fruit of violence in their own lives and how they have come to live beyond it into a world of light. I am convinced more than ever that nonviolence is necessary, whatever it’s limitations.

Mostly, however, I picture Matthew and Milky in a prison cell, reading out loud to each other. It may not change things to the degree that I would like just as my reading to the boys of Unit H will not alter their circumstances. Still, it lulls me to sleep at night, this image of two young men who defy society’s stereotypes by one seemingly-insignificant, yet remarkable act—they read to each other.

“At Dawn Where Two Worlds Meet”

The Bluebird Word, March 2022

Nonfiction by Hope Nisly

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.

The light of early morning is magic, pure and simple and full of possibility. I believe this, even when I am rudely jolted awake by the ring of my phone and it is barely light out. A voice asks, “Can you be ready in five minutes? I’ll pick you up. I want to show you something.” Because the voice belongs to the quietest of my five brothers, the one who seldom displays strong emotion or succumbs to any hint of urgency, I respond quickly and without a clue of what might be coming.

Now here we stand quietly at the fence row of a neighbor’s farm. We are looking out over a convocation of bald eagles, at minimum forty, that landed in a field newly-covered with the aromatic debris from a farmer’s barnyard. I take a deep breath and hold it, as if any movement or sound might obliterate the tranquility of this early morning tableau.

In several weeks, this field will be covered with green shoots pushing up through the rich, muck-covered soil. This morning, however, it is covered only with majestic birds that swoop and peck at the dung, hunting for a mischief of mice or a labor of voles too slow to evade their talons of death. The eagles, so recently snatched back from the edge of extinction, ignore our curiosity.

In the pink glow of the rising sun, our shoes damp with dew, all hints of our political differences have faded into the shadows of this flood of early light.

Words are superfluous in this light. Side-by-side, we stand in silence and solidarity and hope, basking in this breath-taking view of these birds of prey. I am content to stand quietly in the lengthy early-morning shadow cast by my brother, this quiet man whose soul is full of love for all living things, who wants to share this with me just because I am; just because he is; just because we are.


“Ages and Ages Hence: A Conservative Mennonite Woman’s Secret Dreams of Education”

 Journal of Mennonite Writing, v. 9, 2017

“This I remember. How happy I was to be there.” – Edith Swartzendruber Nisly (1919-2017)

The dream came to her soon after she turned ninety and she called to tell me about it. She laughed as she spoke, but it was more tentative than her usual deep-seated laughter.

I was nearly the youngest of a large family and born when my mother1 was close to forty; I had a relaxed relationship with her. She was past the general chaos that came with a profusion of young children in a too-small house, past the point she worried over other people’s opinions. So we laughed together, relaxed over meals, shared our day’s events. With little hesitation, she told her hopes, freely admitted to her mistakes. To be sure, we also clashed over curfews and hemlines and hairstyles. It was, after all, the late 60s and early 70s.

So now my ninety-plus-year-old mother tells me her dream, which we didn’t know at the time would be a recurring one over the next several years. “I’m going to college. I was at Hesston. And there I was, an old woman trying to keep up with the young people. I couldn’t find my class or my notebook, but I was happy to be there,” she smiles. “This I remember. How happy I was to be there.” Then she finishes with another chuckle, “It’s sort of silly, isn’t it? I just don’t know why I would be dreaming this.”

Now her voice gets a little lilt, full of the amusement that I remember from my teenaged years when we were playing Scrabble and she was about to lay a risqué word. “I had plans you know,” she continues. “There are things I’ve never told anyone before.”

I wait while she pauses. Sighs. In the background I can hear the call bells that are an integral part of nursing home life. Through the phone and across the miles, I can almost hear her smile.

2.           Layers of Identity

When I signed up for the pre-medical course I wasn’t at all sure what the folks would think of my ideas. I didn’t want to ask Dad point-blank. He would be honor-bound to raise reasonable objections. … I told him I was in pre-med but that there were many applicants for entrance … and not nearly all were accepted and especially not if you were a girl. Dad ate a few bites and then he said, “I guess you’re as good as anybody.” And that was all he ever said. He gave me the same support and co-signed notes at the bank the same as he did for his sons.

                                                                             – Lydia Hershberger Emery (1909-1997)

My mother, Edith Swartzendruber, was ten years younger than her father’s cousin, Lydia Hershberger. The two women were from the same rural community, both were Mennonite. In 1934, Edith attended 9th grade (over the protest of her church) and then was forced to quit school. At about the same time, Lydia matriculated into a pre-med program at the University of Iowa, a state institution near the Hershberger and Swartzendruber farmsteads. She graduated in 1941.

In later reflections on her decision, Lydia acknowledged that, initially, she told no one. “When I signed up for the pre-medical course, I wasn’t at all sure what the folks would think . . . I well knew confrontation was not the way to go; not when dealing with a Hershberger and a good Mennonite father.” She waited for her acceptance letter before telling her parents. If they entertained any doubt about their daughter’s choice, they concealed it and offered financial support.

In the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, American society did not believe that women should be educated. Even those who advocated for women’s education cared less about equality and justice, and more the creation of a democratic society. Educated mothers were a necessity to prepare sons for civic duty in a democratic society.

In Iowa, where Edith grew up, the story of women and education is unique. In 1855, the state founded the first public university in the U.S. that accepted white women and men on an equal basis. This is not to say that Iowa women desiring an education had smooth sailing. A few years later, the Board of Trustees attempted to create a separate college for women, but faculty thwarted that effort.

In the 1930s, eighty years after the first women entered the U of I classrooms, Edith’s cousin Lydia still worried about getting into the program. “I told [Dad] I was [trying for] pre-med but that there were many applicants … and not nearly all were accepted and especially not if you were a girl.” [Italics are mine.]

A multiplicity of identities shaped Edith. She was part of the Swartzendruber family, she was a Mennonite child, and she was the daughter of a revered bishop. She was born a year before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment granted voting rights to women and came of age during the Great Depression. She was a Midwesterner, an Iowan, a farm girl who attended a one-room school. She grew up seven miles from the closest town, thirty miles from the nearest city. Her family belonged to a congregation that broke away from the Mennonite church so that it could better resist assimilation into American society and culture. It rejected education for its young people, whether male or female.

In her later years, my mother told me how the county superintendent of schools came to her home in the month before she would finish ninth grade. She listened to the conversation through the heating grate in the floor of her room while the adults discussed her future. She heard him tell her parents that their daughter was a good student and a ready learner. “You should really let her finish high school,” he told them. This superintendent had promoted Edith from third to fifth grade, a common practice for students who surpassed expectations.

Her father wanted his daughter to finish high school. He was, in fact, the bishop and if he decided to forge ahead, he had the authority to do so. But, as a committed Mennonite, he also believed in the authority of the congregation, the collective wisdom of the community. The community (gemeinschaft) and submission to the communal decision (gelassenheit) took precedence over individual desires. Edith’s father believed it would be an abuse of his power to override the congregation’s concerns about education. He did, however, insist that his daughter would finish the ninth grade, over some protests.

Edith and her older cousin, Lydia, were born in the same milieu. Both were Iowans, farm daughters, and Mennonites. Each assessed their situation and then followed two different paths. Knowing that support from family and church was not guaranteed, Lydia chose to become a doctor. Edith chose to adhere to the communal decision of her church. To defy the church’s boundaries, to rebel against its restrictions would have cost her more than she was willing to risk, even with the knowledge that either decision would result in a loss to herself.

More Dreams

I had plans, you know. Did I ever tell you that part?

-Edith Swartzendruber Nisly

“I always told people I wanted to be a nurse.” My mother is now 94 and she’s had numerous dreams about attending college. In them she has been to Hesston, Eastern Mennonite, the University of Iowa, and a local community college. With each dream she reveals a bit more.

“I knew it would be acceptable to say I wanted to be a nurse, but it wasn’t what I really wanted.”

When she continues, her speech has slowed. I hold my breath. I don’t want even the faintest sound make her reconsider her desire to talk. But age and time seem to have removed her fears.

“I really wanted to study mathematics,” she continues.  “I had plans, you know. Did I ever tell you that part?”

“Also,” she pauses, “I never said this before, but this dream reminded me of my secret plans to run away and enroll at Eastern Mennonite School.”

In this Depression-era Conservative Mennonite community, it would have been a risk to admit out loud that a young woman wanted to study mathematics, that she enjoyed studying and wanted more education. It would have set one adrift in ways that I can only faintly imagine. Edith understood the implications, maintaining a stoic silence until her nonagenarian dreams reminded her.

There were those Mennonite women who found ways to get an education. In a 1983 book Mennonite Women, 1683-1983, Elaine Sommers Rich profiled women who obtained a college degree, one as early as 1896. Some, as might be expected, studied home economics or English, but there were also women learning French, Latin, Greek, and mathematics.

In 1925, John Hartzler wrote about the traditional reasons that Mennonites in the United States shunned education. He wrote of their suspicion of the state and its institutions, of their fear of worldliness, and of the rural, isolationist nature of most Mennonite communities. “Higher education,” Hartzler wrote, “appeared to them as full of worldliness, pride, boasting …” But he also went on to say that the upcoming generation was losing those fears. When he wrote this, Mennonites in the United States had already founded seven colleges.

My mother’s particular community of Conservative Mennonite congregations was not, as Hartzler wrote, “losing its suspicion of education.” It still believed that education led a person to abandon the faith.

The advent of her dreams provided my mother with the relief of revelation. When I told her that I wanted to write her story she was pleased. As I finished each section I would read it to her. When I got to the part where she related her plans to go to EMS, she sat quietly before asking, “Did I really use the term ‘run away’?” I assured her that she had.

“That sounds a bit strong, doesn’t it?” she reflected. “But it is exactly what I meant. I think I need to add something, though. I was too afraid to run away. If I would have had someone who wanted to go with me, who encouraged me, perhaps I could have done it. But I was much too frightened to go alone.”


Remembering, Reflecting, Resisting

I shall be telling this with a sigh,

Somewhere ages and ages hence…

                             -Robert Frost

In January of this year, several months before her 98th birthday, my mother died. As our family talked about her life before the funeral service, my oldest sister mentioned how Mom wanted to be a nurse. In my eulogy I told instead, the story of Mom’s hidden desire to study mathematics, something that surprised all but a few of us.

As a teenager, she had stood at a moment of decision. Knowing that she would lose her community and her support system if she chose to get an education, my mother was unable to factor in her loss by choosing against personal calling, desire, and gifts. Choosing the path of community, she married and raised a family, chaired the sewing circle when asked, and occasionally gave her testimony or read her essays during the Sunday evening Young People’s Meeting (the one space allocated for women’s participation in the public life of the church).

At sixteen she acquiesced in silence. She experienced a fleeting moment of inner rebellion with her plans to run away, but an open admission to those plans could only happen eight decades hence. In her thirties, she discouraged her oldest children from education, utilizing the very words that she had once strained against: “You will leave your faith if you do this.” In her forties, she began to reveal her youthful desire, but couched it in acceptable terms: “I wanted to be a nurse.” Nearing 50, with most of her children grown, she took classes at a local community college, getting a certificate to be a medical aide. Nearing 60, when I told her that several women at church warned me against college, she looked me in the eye and said clearly, “Pay no attention. You’ll regret it if you don’t go.” It was years before I grasped the full import of her advice. Finally, in her 90s she began to reveal the fullness of her youthful desire.

Through all her stages of life, she practiced small forms of resistance: she shared infant and child care with her husband, a move that was out of the ordinary in the 1940s; she taught her sons to cook, stating that her sons would not go into life or marriage without knowing their way around a kitchen; when another child at church taunted me with, “your mother has to work” she merely laughed. “Tell them that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.” In time, she took courses at the local college.

Those things (teaching sons to cook, sharing child care with her husband, working away from home, getting a community college certificate) are not particularly earth-shattering until you put it in the context of her life and times. It is true that she did not follow her dramatic route of running away, but she found small ways over the intervening years to follow her own path. To see her life as quiet acquiescence would be, I believe, yet another loss, one that would compound the losses already present in her life.

So if she only resisted in the most oblique ways, if she encountered her communal boundary and could not cross it, because she chose the loss of education over the loss of community, why tell her story at all? A life story such as that of my mother is difficult to come by, but it is illustrative of the lives of women who cannot tell their stories, who suppressed or forgot them, who could neither find the words to articulate their story nor the courage to resist their strictures in even the smallest of ways. It is those stories that concern me, stories that seem insignificant at first blush, stories that are less likely to be told than the stories of women who found the courage to hurdle their barriers.

As Brenda Brasher said in her book on fundamentalist women, “… it is difficult for such stories to survive, even as gossip. They sink like stones out of the claimed visible memory of congregational life.”

I want my mother’s story to survive, not only as a poignant story for myself, but as a window into a world of barriers and fears that women faced, and as a revelation of the subtle resistance of countless other women as well.

“Family, Nonviolence, and Social Class: One Family’s Story”

 Journal of Mennonite Writing, v. 10, 2018

“You’re going to have to face it, Mom,” my daughter taunted me. “Me and my friends are just white trash. And we do white trash kinds of things.”

She was fifteen and had only lived with us since she was eleven. I was explaining to her why we wouldn’t allow her to go with her friend’s family to a casino. I had a pretty good idea what went on there. The other parents both drank and played the slots while our two 15-year-old kids did what they wanted – which included drinking, smoking, and sex in the bathroom. My husband Doug and I held dramatically different views on appropriate activities for teenagers. Our management of the teenagers’ time seemed excessive to the other set of parents and unreasonable, just as their lack of oversight seemed bizarre and inappropriate to us.

Barbara said this, knowing exactly how I felt about the names and labels teenagers place on each other: slut, whore, white trash, towel head, and worse. We had those conversations from time to time. These aren’t words I use, not words that I want to hear, and particularly not by my teenaged daughter – not even about herself. Especially, not about herself.

At a deeper level, she sensed that I harbored anxieties over class differences, along with a lack of understanding, an inability to navigate the class lines that divide our society. I believe she knew, albeit subconsciously, that I was not only bothered by the term “white trash” but also by the fact that it was being used by and about my own daughter.

E. Kay Trimberger, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Sonoma State University, writes about her experience as an adoptive mother who had to navigate those boundaries of race and class for the sake of her son. Much like my daughter, her son accused her of being classist, even if she might not be racist. Trimberger admitted, “I didn’t know how to relate to people who lived in small, cramped apartments, whose incomes were irregular and precarious, who sometimes didn’t have food in the house, who didn’t have regular meal times together, and who had family members who were in jail and/or drug users.”[1]

As my children became adults with their own circles of friends and in-laws, I was drawn into interactions that have carried me far outside my comfort zone. My sole frame of reference prior to adopting Barbara and Matthew was my turbulent relationship with one sister-in-law who came from a welfare-class family. We loved each other, but we struggled in our relationship. My children, on the other hand, always lived between social worlds, crossing the boundaries and never of their own choice.

So when Barbara flung out her self-denigrating claim of “white trash” she prompted me to reflect on something that I should have (perhaps) considered when she was eleven and arrived in our home after five years in foster care. We had received extensive training on the difficulties of adopting older, hard-to-place children who had wandered through the foster care system, frequently for years. But no one had suggested that the hardest part might be the way it forced me to face my own prejudices and biases.

Over the years of watching my children grow to adulthood, I searched for anything written about social class in adoption. There was almost nothing in the literature that I could find. Much has been written on social class in marriage, or in parenting styles, or in society in general. There was also an overwhelming sea of information about the many issues in adoption, from behavioral problems to race and ethnicity, but not social class. It made me wonder if I was the only one that found this difficult, or why class theory was never applied to adoption.

Recently, in the continuing near-absence of such literature, I turned to my son Matthew. As an adult, now in his 30s, he enjoys talking about things like this, sifting through memories, comparing notes. I barely got the words “adoption” and “social class” out of my mouth when he dived in. “Do you want to know what those differences looked like to me when you adopted us?” He was eight when he and his sister arrived in our home. They had spent five years in foster care. “Here are the broad categories where I noticed class differences: food, discipline, toys (both what children and adults play with), and parental expectations.”

I began with parental expectations, considering my own experience of relinquishing many of my hopes over the years. I have not, for example been able to impart to Barbara and Matthew the value of an education, or of saving money, or of planning for the future. But Matthew had something else in mind. “Our birthparents had no expectations except that we stay out of their way. Our foster parents weren’t too strict with me, but they expected Barbara to be their Barbie doll,” he told me. “Soon after we came to live with you, we got really muddy when we played in the creek. When we came home for lunch, Barbara was scared to go in the house. I told her it would be okay, but she was sure you’d be angry that she was muddy. You asked her ‘Matthew’s muddy, too, so why are you worried and he isn’t?’ But we both knew that girls were supposed to stay clean and be quiet. And you told us to get as dirty as we want and that’s what the bath tub was for.”

My children experienced three distinct social classes by the time they were eight and eleven. They were born into the welfare class, where they alternated between the streets, homeless shelters, and an occasional apartment. In foster care, they were in a lower working-class home where the foster father was a janitor, the mother a permanent foster caregiver. They were members of a southern Assemblies of God church. Then at eight and eleven, they came to our home. We were both college-educated, worked at Cornell University, and were part of a house church where everyone was educated and middle-class. While not wealthy, we could easily meet life’s needs beyond the basics.

Some of the differences Matthew went on to describe were superficial, but important to children. They were used to canned spinach, pudding snack packs, and pop tarts bought with careful planning and coupon snipping. We shopped for organic apples, tofu, and green leafy vegetables. They had never had a story read to them and we had more books than toys. We expected them to play with sticks, wade in the creek, and (yes!) get muddy. They were used to toys with motors (dirt bikes, go-carts) while we went canoeing, hiking, and fossil-hunting.

Other differences, however, were much more substantial and became clear over time, particularly into their adulthood. This included things like how we manage resources (time, money, even emotions) and the emotional capacity to allow us the space to engage in activism and social change.

There is something quite prescient in a child’s view of the world. One of Barbara’s first questions after adoption focused on being Mennonite (“You won’t make me be that, will you?”) and the second one on nonviolence (“What kind of crazy is that?”) Their experiences in their family of origin were such that a term like “nonviolence” was irrational and pointless. Their foster family would have found it to be unpatriotic and useless. Their earliest collective memory involved knives and excessive amounts of blood. At ages 3 and 5, they were the ones who called 9-1-1 to salvage a bad situation. The disconnect between that as one’s earliest memory and our vision of nonviolence was glaring.

After numerous times hearing them relate this event to us, I began to understand that the story and the violence was no longer their story alone. Our family story had become steeped in violence. We had to look for different ways to define and live nonviolence. Our collective story shared this single, horrifying event. How do you teach nonviolence, how do you live it when the collective experience belies even its possibility? All we could do was let them tell their story as often as necessary.

Like so much of life with children who have resided in foster care, we began to rearrange our lives and redefine our beliefs, a decidedly unsettling process of our daily lives.

Soon after we moved to Reedley, a small central California town, Walmart attempted to open a store. I don’t care for Walmart and its methods, a sentiment shared by others in our community. The process to barricade our town against Walmart began. Many of the opponents included members of the Reedley Peace Center, a progressive group to which my husband and I belonged. Walmart, they said, was unjust. I agreed. Except that, like Liza Featherstone, a writer for The Nation, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Writing for The Nation in the early 2000s, Featherstone described her investigation into Walmart, it’s employees and practices. She concluded that, while she finds much wrong with the company, there are people who benefit from its presence. Barbara was newly on her own, and her friends’ families, most of whom were struggling to get by, had no place to shop in Reedley. They would save pennies to fill their gas tanks to drive twenty miles to a Walmart to afford a few basic necessities: underwear, shampoo, aspirin. I didn’t want to come down on the side of Walmart, but the issue became a bit muddied when I weighed the potential presence of Walmart alongside the needs of a different set of Reedley citizens. When I wanted to talk about this at the Peace Center, I was cut off mid-sentence with statement, “But we’re doing the right thing. Walmart would hurt Reedley if we let it come here.” My daughter’s experience was, in short, irrelevant to The Cause. Walmart withdrew its attempt and my daughter continued to struggle to buy daily necessities.

Soon after the Walmart debacle, a dinner table discussion with Matthew (who was 16) focused on some 1990s political event. He stopped us. “This is the difference between us,” he said. “You look at the world and you’re always asking questions, trying to figure out how to change things. I hear the same things and I just see the way things are.”

Whether this is a product of the differences in the way social classes view the world, or of Matthew’s life experiences is a bit difficult to say – it’s some of both, I presume. There is a resignation in my kids toward what happens in life, personally or politically. What is, is. And they believe there is little they can do to change it.

In studying cross-class marriages, sociologist Jessi Streib determined that the middle-class spouse, in keeping with how s/he had been raised, took a managerial approach to decision-making and to life. They tended to carefully schedule, monitor, and organize as much as they could: career and work, money and savings, children and parenting, housework, time, leisure, emotions. The working-class spouse, on the other hand, sat back and allowed things follow their own course. They did this even though they had obtained an education and entered the marriage that, in effect, provided an entry point into a different social class. Strieb writes, “Just as taking the person out of the class did not take the class out of the person, a marriage was not a new beginning that removed the imprints of each partner’s class past.”[2]

Over time, I have had to reconsider the emotional space needed to plan and manage one’s life or to have the ability to consider issues of justice. When I plan my retirement, for example, or when I walk through the world muttering about this or that injustice, I now recognize that these things are a luxury that not everyone has. As adults, my children find it difficult to save for the future or to make long term life plans. They do not feel connected to broader social and political forces. Their experiences keep them a permanent part of that segment of society for whom planning and management, even for connection, is outside of their scope of being.

Early in the fateful U.S. 2016 election campaign I entered a brief, passionate stage of trying to understand the people flocking to Trump rallies chanting “Make America Great Again” and “Lock her up.” I read Arlie Russell Hochschild and J.D. Vance, and any news analysis I could find. I saw misogyny and racism and hatred and fear as I tried (initially) to understand.

My desire to understand ebbed and flowed throughout the campaign, as I moderated my own anger in response. This desire slowly died in a fit of anger and deep, abiding sadness. At the beginning the pundits spun theories based on class, gender, race, and education levels. Over time, the revelation came that it was, in fact, not a straightforward case of a specific demographic, not limited to uneducated, under-employed white males. But even so, class clearly played a role.

Woven through the warp of 2016 and beyond, was our own personal pathway through the perils of cross-class relationships. For all her adult life, Barbara harbored a reluctance to become politically aware or involved. Prior to the 2008 California primary, she surprised Doug and me when she asked us to help her register so that she could “vote for a woman.”

Then came the 2016 presidential campaign. In the summer, as I watched the Democratic National Convention, Barbara sent me a text to ask what I was doing. I asked if she was watching the convention and she texted back, “Oh Mom! It’s all I can do to go to work, take care of myself, and look after my dogs.” Before I could answer, she sent another text, “Politics doesn’t have much to do with me.” I suggested a few ways that it might affect her (health care or taxes, for examples) and her texting stopped. I figured I had scared her once again so I let it go. Then came her final text of the evening, “I may not care about this Mom, but I’ll be really happy for you if Hillary wins.”

Through our most difficult times, Barbara and I have made an art form out of our use of social media to communicate. We both need and love each other deeply even when living our relationship is problematic, but we have found an avenue in careful texting. By November, the day after the election, our exchanges took on a different tone, one more reflective of the general atmosphere in our country.

With a Facebook taunt making the rounds of Barbara’s husband’s family (“Suck it up, Buttercup. We had to put up with Obama for eight years.”) Doug and I decided we couldn’t let it go. Both of us attempted to explain the racism inherent in that statement. We kept it brief and hoped for the best. What we got in return was a rage that we have rarely experienced in her adult years. “Me and my friends aren’t stupid,” she ranted. “And we can believe what we want. I’ve always been a disappointment to you. I’M NOT LIKE YOU AND I NEVER WILL TO BE.”

As the mood of the United States has deteriorated since the election, we spent the following year mending our own family rifts.

There are many issues in adoption, many of them leaving families adrift, alone, and bewildered. Issues of social class and differing values may not seem like the most important ones when raising a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder or who has been abused and neglected. But for me, at least, it has been these issues that have left me (and my children), at times, in a state of permanent displacement, forced to navigate some of the most difficult and nebulous societal boundaries at an intimate level.

With all our struggles, we’ve seen our children become reasonably functional adults, holding jobs and finding their own meaning in life. I am uncomfortable at family gatherings that include my daughter’s in-laws, but I’ve come to look forward to our annual Easter dinners together at Barbara’s house, sharing a meal while steering clear of political discussions.

Our daughter finds some satisfaction connecting to her Mennonite grandmothers in ways I never could do. She attributes her finesse at quilt design and jam making to both grandmothers. To be sure, her grandmothers would never have considered making mango-habanero or strawberry-jalapeno jams, but they taught her these arts and she loves it. Our son enjoys a good political discussion even while resolutely claiming that such things are beyond an individual’s influence. He is ambivalent about environmental issues, and yet he is helping us turn our California drought-weary backyard and orchard into a xeriscaping oasis. He prunes and tends our peach, persimmon, and orange trees with tenderness.

Over the years, and with continuing stumbles and scrapes, we have carved out a corner of the world where we can communicate with and love each other in our own bumbling, fumbling ways. In an article about writing ecstatic essays, Rachel Yoder states that we are “inexorably altered when we are thrust into the world of the real…” My children have thrust me into that real world. They have given me a profound sense of and appreciation for the many stories that people carry. They have altered and reshaped my values: nonviolence and justice, community, activism. But most importantly, perhaps, they have helped me understand the disjointed nature of loss, anger, and pain. I have learned that I can live with a level of discomfort that I once would have considered unbearable and unmanageable. I have learned (I hope) to listen a little closer while speaking less and I have come to recognize how pain lingers through several generations, passed on like family heirlooms. I’ve learned to manage my own expectations and to grieve my own losses, while simultaneously celebrating the briefest moments of connection and communication with my children.

And even this last paragraph illuminates my privileged, class-based space.

“The Things He Read”

“The Things He Read”

The Mojave River Review, Spring-Summer 2018

“The Things He Read”

The Mojave River Review, Spring-Summer 2018

Without obsession, life is nothing.  -John Waters

To be honest, he could never really say that he enjoyed reading, but he always knew that he liked what reading provided: information, adventure, and once even a BB gun. The gun was a parental incentive to read the entire Bible the year he turned ten. The reward was tantalizing enough to persevere from Genesis through Revelation. Other than Goliath and the psychedelic creatures of Revelation, he remembered little from this effort.

His parents bought The World Book Encyclopedia from a traveling salesman and he worked through all twenty-six volumes with much more verve than he mustered for his trek through the Bible.

His second-grade classroom included a four-volume science compendium that covered everything from space to electronics to weather. He read it so often that when his family moved, his teacher gave it to him saying that he read it more than all her students from the past ten years combined.

With the move, he had to learn a new language. Adults assured him that he’d learn quickly because he was young. It was a lie. He became the class clown and was spanked by his teacher for what they termed his “lack of effort.” (In those days, corporal punishment was meted out in near-biblical proportions.) He read only what he had to at school and continued to scour his beloved science compendium at home.

When he began to play piano, he read musical scores and the biographies of composers in German and English.

His mother’s friend sent a box of Scholastic books so that he could read in English. Unfortunately, she chose sports stories such as Break for the Basket which she thought all young boys liked. In fact, he hated sports and disliked those books. The science compendium continued to be his lifeline.

In high school he read German classics: Goethe, Brecht, Mann, Musil, Grimmelshausen, whose stories often chronicled the Thirty Years War from the varied perspectives of either the mentally challenged or the elite of society. They were gruesome, but mostly worthwhile.

Returning to the United States for college, he studied mathematics and music performance hoping he wouldn’t have to read much. When everyone around him lauded The Screwtape Letters he tried to read it. He not only did not finish it, he never got beyond the first five pages. This was one of the rare times when he did not compulsively finish whatever book he began. C. S. Lewis was not to his taste.

Upon graduation he moved to Berkeley where he worked for minimum wage in an electronics store. In the evening, he made simple meals (pasta, lentils) then spent evenings reading the dictionary through as if it were a novel in single words, each definition a micro-story. On Sunday mornings, he added the newspaper to his repertoire, for news and the want ads.

With the advent of the internet, he became an online news junkie reading four or five newspapers and Der Spiegel every day. Where other middle-aged men might succumb to porn, he yielded to the allure of information and politics.

In late middle-age, after reading Divine Comedy, he tackled Ulysses. This took him seven years, which, he liked to point out, was the amount of time it took Joyce to write it. When he talked about re-reading it, certain that he missed too much in the first go-round, his wife threatened to destroy his copy.

After Ulysses he read through the holy books of major world religions, beginning with the Qur’an. He discovered that, alone among sacred texts, the Book of Mormon was too tedious to bear. He harbors grudging admiration for the zealots who claim to have read it. This was the second (and last) book that he started and did not finish.

He continued to scour websites for news and politics while playing piano to get away from what he saw as the total insanity of the post-9/11 craziness of a homeland-secured world. When his son wrote from prison that he was reading the dictionary, he wondered if he had done his job of parenting well—or poorly.

He never learned to love reading. But, as always, he liked what it gave him: a feeling of accomplishment, information, and insight. He often wished he had kept that science set from his youth. Of all the things he ever perused, that was most meaningful.

And after the BB gun he owned as a kid, he never purchased or held a gun again in his life. Yet one more benefit to add to the list of the benefits of reading, however reluctant.

“The Relativity of Romance”

“The Relativity of Romance”

50 Give or Take, December 19, 2023
(TBP in The 50-Word Stories of 2024: Microfiction for Lovers of Quick Reads, November 2024)

“The Relativity of Romance”

50 Give or Take, December 19, 2023
(TBP in The 50-Word Stories of 2024: Microfiction for Lovers of Quick Reads, November 2024)

There were no roses, no jewelry. There was only a yo-yo that lit up in the dark, bought on the plaza at the Embarcadero BART. Apologizing, he handed it to me, It’s not exactly romantic. But I understood then, what I know now, what forty years has solidified for me.



Readers Write, The Sun Magazine, January 2024


Readers Write, The Sun Magazine, January 2024


She was 11 when we met her, a gangly pre-teenager who had spent her previous five years in foster care. A year before meeting her, my husband and I had adopted her younger bio-brother. We wanted to adopt her, too, but the social worker doubted our abilities to handle her anger and her acting out. We were stubborn and, quite possibly, a bit naive, but we persisted. Our lawyer called social services, and within a few days they arranged a visit. She lived 400 miles away; we packed and hit the road before they could change their minds.

On the first morning of her visit, our son wanted to show her his favorite play spaces: the woods behind our apartment where he hunted for fossils, the creek where he floated sticks and built miniature dams, the puddles filled with tadpoles. It was a kid heaven, a wonderfully mysterious and muddy space that appealed to his imagination, a place he knew his sister would love.

I sent them out with instructions to have fun and be back at noon for lunch. Off they went, hand-in-hand after a year of separation. A year is a long time to children, and I knew how much they needed this time together. Our son often cried at bedtime, missing his big sister and long-time protector.

As I was setting out lunch, our son came in the front door. He was covered in mud—and alone. I asked where his sister was. He said that she didn’t want to come inside because she was dirty. He told me that her foster mother said that good little girls never get dirty. He explained that she was punished for getting her clothes muddy. He  told me that he had tried to reassure her that I would just laugh, that I wouldn’t care how dirty she was. Nothing convinced her. In her experience, boys were granted this freedom, while she could expect a response of disgust or even anger.

I found her in the corner of the yard and sat beside her in the grass. It took a few minutes to convince her that I wasn’t angry, that she had nothing to worry about. I asked her if she had fun. She said yes. I asked if she liked getting dirty. Again, yes. Well then, I said, if you had fun, that’s what matters. Dirt is good fun, I told her, for girls as well as for boys. I promised her that clothes and bodies are easily washed.

That 11-year-old is now 40, and she’s been our daughter all these years. She gardens and goes camping and doesn’t worry much about getting dirty. This once-angry, scared little girl has become a loving adult daughter who can handle anything that comes her way.

“Likes / Dislikes”

“Likes / Dislikes”

Persimmon Tree, December 2023
“Likes / Dislikes”

Persimmon Tree, December 2023

Things I like: clothes drying on the line, maps of fictional worlds, cemeteries, blueberries, long winter

nights, making lists, train rides, street art, small poodles, the disorientation of travel, libraries,

cardamom, dioramas, Amish noodles, rain, curtains blowing in the breeze, lengthy silences, #2 pencils,

archaic words and phrases.


Things I dislike: calling girls princess, water, plane trips, sand, the term “ladies”, flossing, sun, ideologues,

gardening, big screen televisions, manicured lawns, leaf blowers, baby showers, weddings, smoothies,

fad diets, roses, bicycling.


“Never Take a Drop of H2O Lightly”

“Never Take a Drop of H2O Lightly”

Persimmon Tree: An Online Journal of the Arts, Winter 2019-20

“Never Take a Drop of H2O Lightly”

Persimmon Tree: An Online Journal of the Arts, Winter 2019-20

Colleen is clean again, her body washed with warm water and a no-rinse soap, the kind used in hospitals and nursing homes when the patient is hooked up to machines and cannot be wheeled into the shower. Marnetta and I, who are bathing her, are Colleen’s spiritual sisters in the absence of biological ones. Over the years, we have come together periodically to listen to each other, share milestone birthdays, work on bucket lists. Now we are here to care for Colleen with a tub of warm water and a dry-shampoo cap.
From her head to her feet, we wash her tenderly, vigilantly monitoring for signs of skin breakdown and scrubbing away the sour body odor to replace it with Winter Morning lotion. Marnetta agrees when I comment that, having lived in winter worlds many years, I never associated it with a particular scent, and certainly not this one. Some lonely soul in a lab must have thought the name sounded cozy, comforting. Someone who lived near a sunny beach in a non-wintry state such as Florida. Someone who doesn’t know that winter mornings are aesthetically beautiful, but devoid of fragrance.

Since her surgery a week ago, Colleen’s days have settled into an unusual silence. The doctors recommended a tracheotomy to prevent the cancer cells from squeezing her airways and suffocating her. I look at our friend, this woman who delighted in expressing her opinions on all things political, theological, theoretical. Post-surgery, she can only write her thoughts laboriously on a whiteboard and hope we will be able to decipher the chicken tracks that appear. Colleen was never at a loss for words, but of words spoken rather than written. Now, when she wants to communicate she must write her thoughts from under the layers of Dilaudid and Ativan that keep her calm and sleepy. There is the further complication of double vision that comes from the edema which has blistered her eyes. Finally, add the difficulty of writing from a supine position, looking down her nose toward the whiteboard, and you have a perfect storm that slows or halts effective communication.

It is painful to watch Colleen struggle to communicate. We’ve tried numerous writing options, including a computer set-up that clipped on the bed rail. When we discussed that possibility, she scribbled “Stephen Hawking” and smiled, her sense of humor intact. In the end, the whiteboard remained the best option.

Despite our best efforts with this loving bed bath and winter morning lotion, the sour body smell never completely dissipates, as if in a mere week, the cancer and the odor have laid claim to her body, a tangible reminder of our fleeting and frail nature. No matter how much we have prepared for her death in the past several years, the end of life (especially for someone not yet 60) creeps in with numbing finality. We take turns walking out into the bitter Indianapolis cold and snow of January, desperately attempting to clear our clogged minds and freeze our grief.

* * *

When we were young and in our prime, before careers and marriage and life led us in different directions, Colleen, Marnetta, and I lived together in Iowa City. Our time together began in the tumultuous years after Marnetta and Colleen returned to the United States following a stint in Northeast Brazil with Mennonite Central Committee. Reacclimating to a consumer-driven society after several years in drought-stricken Northeastern Brazil was difficult enough. Colleen’s return was complicated by the residual trauma caused by the misogyny of her male supervisor. He was exceptionally antagonistic toward Colleen with her feminist understandings, her perspicacity, and her open rejection of his incompetence and bullying.

They returned in the first years of the Reagan administration. Our fortieth president, calling for a “New Federalism,” cut taxes, slashed federal spending for social programs, and increased the military budget. Nuclear annihilation felt imminent. Homelessness was on the rise. Reagan stirred national antipathy and anger toward the poor and minorities by calling out a (nonexistent) “Welfare Queen.”

Any homecoming includes a bout of culture shock. This political climate complicated their return. They struggled with job hunting. In the evenings we sat around our kitchen table, discussing painful personal and political issues. In a sense, we ran our own halfway house in our duplex. We found communion in a local peace community and in a church with likeminded people. We stood together in zero-degree weather at prayer vigils for peace in Central America, bundled up against the frigid Iowa winter. We protested our government’s policies in support of the Contras and marched a half a million strong in a SANE demonstration in Chicago. We worked at the food kitchen and kept company with Central American refugees seeking sanctuary with a local United Church of Christ congregation.

As Colleen and Marnetta worked their way through culture shock, our friendship grew. We lived together several years before parting ways: Marnetta to El Salvador as a nurse, Colleen to seminary in the Midwest, and I to Oakland to work in a homeless shelter. We never lived in the same community again, but we stayed in touch. A few years later, I married Colleen’s brother.

Thirty-five years later, we are at Colleen’s bedside in her final weeks of life. Following her bath this morning, Colleen dozes. When she opens her eyes again, she motions us to come close. She writes, “I’m disoriented.” We remind her that she is in the hospice room. She points to her throat, a request to be suctioned. With her throat suctioned, Colleen relaxes and points to the two of us at opposite sides of her bed. She writes an addendum to her first thought, “But you two orient me.”

* * *

Colleen always believed that the worst possible thing would happen. When I lived with her, mild winds were certain to become tornadoes. Someone not returning home on time was lying in a hospital bed. But now, when the worst really has happened and her breast cancer has metastasized after remission, Colleen has become uncharacteristically Zen-like.

Years of fighting political and theological systems, decades of advocating for those with less power, have not translated into fighting for her own life. She has steadfastly refused chemotherapy, looking instead for ways to enjoy her time. A fine-art photographer, she bought a smaller camera when a deteriorating spinal cord no longer allowed her to carry heavy equipment. She made her bucket list and checked things off methodically. She communicated with friends (along with a nemesis or two) to “make things right.” She doubled down in her efforts to show  children (in the elementary school where she was a social worker) how to resist bullying, how to respect others, how to love themselves.

Colleen worried about others’ experience of her death more than her own. She prepared her schoolchildren for when she would not be with them anymore. She inquired about our support for her refusal of treatment. She feared that her death might cause me extra pain, coming so close to the death of my older brother. But for herself, she seemed to have no fear except of suffocation if no one was available to suction her airways. “There are always,” she writes on her whiteboard, “more lessons to be learned. But I am at peace.”

Six months before her death, we spent a week together on an Alaska UnCruise, the final line on her bucket list. With typical thoroughness, Colleen researched the possibilities for a trip that would accommodate her needs and provide as much beauty as her much desired but now impossible trip to New Zealand. The UnCruise was a success. Her doctor gave her enough steroids to sustain her and she joined us in most days’ events.

In the evenings, we sat together, three friends in a hot tub at the stern. There was much to discuss about the thirty-plus years of our friendship: fears of life in Trump’s America, the suicide of Colleen’s 17-year old daughter, Marnetta’s husband’s Asperger’s Syndrome, my son’s prison time. All three of us have adult children in various stages of finding their paths in life. Each of us endures some workplace trauma.

Mostly, however, we sat in silence, warmed by the water and by our friendship, surrounded by the beauty of the Northwest Passage, enjoying the solstice sunsets.

* * *

Growing up in a family of evangelical missionaries, Colleen rejected much of what she learned as a child about a personal relationship with Jesus. She maintained a love for the life of Jesus and replaced it with a faith of political engagement and concern for justice. She began her life’s work in sustainable agriculture and ended it working with immigrant children and gang families searching for safety in a world not concerned for their well-being. In between, she worked on water issues in a Base Christian Community in Northeast Brazil, and with victims of domestic violence in post-war Nicaragua. She helped her church hammer out a clear policy for what to do when domestic violence occurred within the congregation. And her faith became more ethereal, at peace with mystery.

Now, in varying states of consciousness and cognizance, she frequently writes the words light and happiness on her whiteboard. Her thoughts aren’t always clear to us, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She writes, “I am closest to death when I am happiest.” And later in the day: “Light can help you understand how to put it all together.” When we start to speculate on the meaning of her words, she holds up one finger and shakes her head, indicating that we should stop. Sometimes, it is best to rest in the mystery.

One of the evenings, I sit alone with Colleen. Our silence is mirrored by the light snowfall outside the window. During the day she had been anxious, but in the evening glow, she is again resting quietly. I sit by her bed in companionable silence.

Feeling around her covers for the pen, she writes, “Look on the porch.” Not sure what to look for, I list what I see in the fading light. I describe the snow on some rocks, the placement of two deck chairs, and the leaves that lift curled corners out of the snow. She holds up her finger to stop, then writes, “I think Tony might have left a feather.

I am confused. I know her friend Tony, the Native American shaman with whom she had a deep spiritual connection. But he had moved to Houston a few years back. While I tried to figure out what she means, she writes, “I feel better,” pointing to what she had written about Tony and the feather. I understand: a feather from Tony would indicate a token of his prayer for her. Without waiting for confirmation, she falls asleep, no longer worried about breathing. She sleeps peacefully.

* * *

Colleen loved good food and good coffee. Despite her frugality, she made an exception for what she ate. At the last Thanksgiving meal, when she could hardly stand for more than five minutes, she helped prepare the turkey, placing herbs and garlic under the skin, stuffing it with a special sausage and mushroom stuffing. Marnetta, Doug, and I made the rest of the meal, but each step was done at her direction. She had chosen the wine with care. She opted for roasted Brussels sprouts and a grated carrot salad using a much-loved family recipe. She supervised the bread-baking with a special recipe she had just discovered. We ate and drank together, our last supper, our final breaking of bread.

Now, several months later, she is getting tube feedings. Nutrients without flavor, calories without joy. Doug stands by her bed, holding a cup of espresso when she writes “taste” and points. He picks up the small sponge on a stick, the one we use to keep her mouth moist. He dips it into the coffee and holds it out to her. She accepts it with a look of delight. After lunch, Doug holds a cup of corn candy in his hand and she writes, “what is it?” He hands her a piece, which she licks, then writes, “Death by corn candy.”

Her writing becomes more obtuse, at times a bit philosophical. At one point she points to her mouth to request that we swab her lips and her tongue with water. We do it carefully so that she won’t gag. After she is hydrated, she pulls the whiteboard to her and writes, “Never take a drop of H2O lightly.”

* * *

Throughout her life, Colleen had a fondness for ritual: fondue every New Year’s, cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning, massages on birthdays, chocolate for all celebrations. A week after the tracheotomy, following her decision for palliative care only, she requested one final ritual: to be anointed with oil. She wanted this to be a final confirmation from all of us that we would set her free, at peace with her decision to refuse treatment. We gathered around her bed while Barry, her spiritual guide, led us through a meditation. He ended with a line from a Mary Oliver poem, “I Did Think, Let’s Go About This Slowly.” The poem ends, “But bless us, we didn’t.” We chuckled at the truth of the line in Colleen’s life.

If not slowly, Colleen certainly went deliberately, with lots of preparation and precision. She reflected on leaving a world in which Trump was president, the one thing that made her happy. Her lifetime of activism no longer possible, she used her Facebook page to post articles and analysis, to beg people to pay attention to the erosion of civil and human rights, to call out our compassion and empathy. She was particularly concerned about DACA and about supporting Black Lives Matter, movements and issues that affected the daily lives of her students.

As her cancer spread, Colleen began to plan her memorial service. After surgery, it appeared she could live a long time. Her vitals remained on target. We were making plans to move her home. The tracheotomy helped her breathe better. But there were gradual changes that week, until she finally wrote to Marnetta, “This is no quality of life.

With that admission, Colleen reached a turning point. She refused to pick up the whiteboard. She still smiled and held our hands. When someone did something for her, she pressed her hands together in a namaste pose, grateful but no longer communicating. After she quit writing, her vitals remained strong for several days. Then her oxygen levels began to drop; within twenty-four hours her heart stopped.

Against all indications of a strong respiratory system, Colleen willed herself into death.

* * *

Six months after Colleen’s death, Marnetta and I sit on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines State Preserve north of San Diego. We traveled here to release some of Colleen’s ashes in a place where she had once spread the ashes of her daughter, Teresa. She had told us to find a place of great beauty. In our travels together she insisted on sticking her toes into any nearby body of water. Whether it was the Adriatic Sea or Alaska’s Inner Passage or the lakes of Plitvice in Croatia, this was one of her rituals. Marnetta and I decided that Torrey Pines fulfilled all requirements. We would carry Colleen’s ashes to a “place of great beauty” and give her one last ritual of “touching the water.”

The sky is cloudless and clear. The blue of the sky reaches out to the blue of the ocean. The color, the clarity, and the solemnity converge at the base of my throat. Sitting on the cliff, looking out to the horizon, I pull out the bag of ashes. As I hold them in my hand, I tell Marnetta we should have planned a ceremony for this moment, in deference to Colleen’s love of ritual. But then I tell myself that ritual wasn’t my thing, nor did I think of it as Marnetta’s thing. Marnetta replies that she, too, had contemplated more planning, but decided she’d leave it to me.

“However,” she continues with a bit of a chuckle, “I did think that it just might be like Colleen to show up today and let us know that she is here.” I relinquish belief in annihilation, giving in to the spirit of the moment, and agree that such a connection would be wonderful. “Perhaps,” I tell Marnetta, “the rattle we hear in the rare pine trees is Colleen telling us how happy she is with our choice of location.”

We recount some aspects of Colleen’s life, starting with her fierce commitment to social justice. We remember her campaign to boycott Coca-Cola in the 1980s when the company ran militaristic ads on television. We note how her male supervisors often chafed at her outspoken bluntness. We admire her steely determination to be a voice for the powerless. We also remember how the physical loss of her voice connected to the loss of her will to live.

Many of the children she had counseled over the years attended her memorial service. One young woman stood up to say that because of Colleen, she left behind life in an Indianapolis gang and was now in college. A few children wrote notes to the family. One called Colleen a superhero. Another wrote, “I took her love givin (sic) to me and put it in a pretty place in my heart.” Another one said how much he would miss her, “… but there is still a fire burning of friend love that will never turn off.”

Following the memorial service, we set up tables in the church fellowship hall. One table symbolized her love of beauty and art. Another table held small bites of cheese and bread and tumblers of wine and grape juice, representing her pleasure in taste and smell. The last table held a DACA petition with postcards to send to members of Congress, a memorial to her passion for social justice.

Sitting on that cliff in the warm June sun, Marnetta and I remember these things about our friend and sister. We are together in this beautiful place and Colleen’s work has ended. We have grieved our loss often in the last six months, but today we celebrate her passion and the joy of friendship. Colleen’s remains lie between us, gray ashes atop tan dirt.

We rise to continue our hike along the ocean. Then hunger hits us and we step up the pace in anticipation of another shared meal before returning home once again.


Author’s Comment: In an unexpected move, I began to write this piece while Colleen was still in hospice. It felt like an appropriate way to begin the process of grief, even though it could also appear a bit crass to write about her death while she was still alive. But because Colleen’s process of dying was a bit unusual anyway and because she was so open to discussing the process, it felt appropriate. I have experienced other deaths and losses, but in no one have I been as doggedly conscious of the process throughout the entire final months. Colleen prepared herself for her final breath, simultaneously helping us prepare for it along with her. The essay did not feel complete, however, until Marnetta and I spread Colleen’s ashes over the surf at Torrey Pines. I needed that closure, both for my grief and for my writing. Writing this essay helped me move through the stages of grief, but it had an added effect that I had not anticipated. It gave me the strength to transfer my grief into action. It continues to help me find my own pathway through the morass of the surreal political situation and deep divides that exist in our country. I don’t re-read the essay often or easily, but when I am exhausted and overwhelmed, I pull it out and read it again, calling on Colleen’s strength of purpose to bolster my own.
“Bread for the Birds”

“Bread for the Birds”

Dead Housekeeping, August 29, 2018

“Bread for the Birds”

Dead Housekeeping, August 29, 2018

Bread and water – two things we cannot do without in life. Let’s make bread: white, wheat, oatmeal, even pumpernickel with a hint of chocolate, or rye with the bitter touch of caraway.

Stir together the flour, water, salt, oil. Whatever else it calls for. Check your recipe, mix, knead, let it rise.

Punch it down, shape it, bake it. See, I have it all written down for the different kinds right here.

Then set out the butter and the strawberry jam. They’ll always eat their fill.

Sometimes you make so much that even after everyone eats it for several days (toast for breakfast, ham sandwiches for lunch, butter-bread with soup for supper) the last pieces go stale. Then it sits on the counter, a few slices in a bag until, finally, there’s a little spot of mold on the last piece.

You might be inclined to throw that last slice away when it turns green. But don’t do it. One must never throw away bread or waste water. Bread is the staff of life. Never forget that. And never throw away even that slice of days-old bread that cannot be toasted or rejuvenated as bread pudding. Put it out for the birds, but never ever throw it in the trash.

We waste too much these days. We really must be more careful.


“Coca-Cola, Hippies, and Two (Ex)-Amish Women”

Prometheus Dreaming, May 2019

“Coke,” Aunt Sue declared in her gravelly voice, “will eat through nails.” She paused long enough to determine that I was listening before she continued. As usual, her hands flailed wildly in front of her, each gesture an emphatic exclamation mark to punctuate her stronghold on truth. “What do you think it will do to your stomach,” she thundered. “God did not intend us to put such filth into our bodies.” Here she paused again to catch her breath in order to fire off her final salvo. “Our bodies. Are the temple. Of the Lord.”

I was twelve the year my great aunt and my grandmother stumbled upon their anti-coke crusade. One of them had read somewhere that someone had put a nail into a glass of coke and the nail had disappeared completely, leaving not so much as a few lingering shavings to show that the nail had once existed in all its “nail-ness.”

Sometimes their diatribe came as a duet, both women gesticulating and declaring their newfound knowledge; this time, it was just Aunt Sue and I was her lonely little audience of one. Perhaps we were in the grocery store and I had asked to buy a drink to stave off the oppressive Iowa summer heat. Maybe we were at home and it just came up in ordinary conversation. Wherever it was, what I remember most was facing Aunt Sue and trying to understand her vehemence. She must have determined that I was more malleable than some of her other descendants, that she could shape me or at least shape my choice of beverage. Was it the coke that mattered or was it the principle of the thing? And if the later, what was the principle of the thing?

Sue was my grandmother Rachel’s sister. They were Bishop Mast’s daughters, the only offspring of his fourth wife, and the two youngest of his fifteen children. Most of the Bishop’s other children, products of wives one through three, were much older than the two youngest daughters, Rachel and Susan, who survived the rigors of a late nineteenth-century childbirth. By their self-description, they were a bit spoiled. Perhaps the Bishop was too old to discipline his youngest two daughters, while Elizabeth, their mother, harbored some reservations or irritations about her role as step-mother to the Bishop’s older children by those three other wives, some of whom were nearly her own age. Elizabeth must have been exhausted running a home that was more the Bishop’s than it was her own with precious little time to devote to her two young daughters.

They were an Amish family and not Mormon, as the four wives might suggest. The wives were consecutive rather than concurrent. Each wife had died in childbirth after having birthed too many children. I guess the good Bishop could not bear the thought of raising all those children alone, or he just could not bear the thought of being without a companion. Or it might have been that he possessed an over-abundance of testosterone and a rip-roaring sexual appetite. I’ll never know.

When I was a child, Grandma and her sister scared the bejesus out of me. Their forceful voices, their intense opinions, their conviction that they were obligated (a command from God) to save their loved ones from the torments of an eternity in hell. They possessed no round edges, only sharp jutting bones, both literally and figuratively. In her sole attempt at warmth or affection, Grandma planted sloppy wet kisses on my cheek whenever she saw me, kisses begging to be wiped off my face as soon as she looked the other way. I never doubted her love, nor the love from her sister Sue.

These two women were full of vim and vigor, coupled with an intense conviction that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. They were waiting for Jesus to come again and quick to share this with anyone who listened. They spoke their truth loudly, getting even louder when they decided that someone was not listening with the appropriate dose of attention. They carved out their own little corner of reality where they dealt with twentieth-century culture in what may have been the only way two ex-Amish woman with an excess of spunkiness could.

When they left the Amish church as adults, Grandma and Aunt Sue adapted their Amish ways to their new life as ex-Amish women. They sorted through their beliefs (not particularly self-consciously) and extracted the pieces that they appreciated, winnowing out the chaff (women’s roles being part of that), and blended it all with their own desires. Into this mix, they tossed a peculiarly Protestant American millennial vision that emanated from a few wayward Mennonite ministers who came through town to hold revival meetings. Upon leaving the Amish, they bought radios and soon discovered the disjointed theology of orators of the airwaves. They came up with a worldview and a theology that was a bit disjointed, but it suited them to a tee.

As a child, they told me stories about their younger years and I loved every story they told. The ones that really got my attention were the moments in which these two women allowed nothing and no one, neither church nor preacher nor even their dearly beloved and highly regarded father-the-Bishop, to dictate their choices for them. Grandma was proud to tell me that by the time my father (her oldest son) was seven, she had taught him how to bake pies and cakes to feed the threshers so that she could go out and drive the team around the field. That was her love and her desire; neither wild horses nor the threat of hell could have imprisoned her in the house. When they left the Amish church and were able to buy tractors she made equally certain that she drove that truck to town with all those loads of wheat. Grandma and Aunt Sue were born in the nineteenth century, lived when many women’s rights were almost unthinkable, dwelled among the quietest people in the land, and adhered to a theology which dictated that women were to be submissive to men in all things. Yet they never felt particularly compelled to abide by the rules of any time, place, or group. They didn’t exactly break out of those roles either, but they never allowed themselves to be forced into submission or to suppress their own deepest desires.

What one sister embraced, the other one joined in. They loved their husbands, but they found their greatest strength in each other. They followed a pattern of extreme frugality long before society rekindled an interest in back-to-basics living and before the era of recycling to save the planet. They were health-conscious before it was in vogue. They had a natural remedy for every ailment and carried with them small suitcases full of vitamins wherever they traveled. They consumed cloves of garlic to boost their immune systems. A hug from them during flu season was akin to making a foray into vampire-fighting territory.

Both sisters conducted their own mini-crusades on healthy living and what to eat, on how to dress in a biblical manner, and on the correct way to follow Jesus or what actions qualified as sin. Their definition of sin changed from time to time, reflecting new fads and fashions. When men began to grow their hair long, that was an abomination. Mini-skirts and jewelry were unbiblical. Women must cover their heads at all times because the Bible instructed: 1) that women were to have their heads covered when praying, and 2) that Christians were supposed to pray without ceasing. There was yet another reason that their church provided for why women should be covered: as a symbol of submission to men and to God. Grandma and Aunt Sue, however, exhibited less concern about that reason. Ultimately, they believed in such authority, but they chose not to live it.

And then came the issue about drinking Coca-Cola. This anti-Coke campaign was more Aunt Sue’s than it was Grandma’s, perhaps, but both believed that one should not drink Coke. Not quite elevated to the level of sin, yet oh-so-clearly-wrong, this belief intensified with time. I once asked Aunt Sue timidly what she thought the acid already in our stomachs would do if we put a nail into a glass of it. I had done some reading and discovered that stomach acid is a strong agent. My skill in polemics, however, was not well-honed and if she had refuted what I said, I would have backed away rapidly. But she ignored me, as the two women ignored anyone who dared to question their conclusions regarding God, Sin, or Coca-Cola.

Where they obtained any of their facts was a bit of a guessing game. We never asked nor did we really want to know—or at least we didn’t want to prolong such a conversation. Some things came from that quirky little weekly newspaper called Grit, “America’s Greatest Family Newspaper.” Some things they obtained from daily religious radio broadcasts with their hell-fire preachers. Many things, I suspect, they simply made up.

From the late 1960s until their deaths, they blamed much of the world’s ills on hippies. Everyone who disagreed with them was bound for hell and, most likely, they were hippies. That became their generic term for all that was wrong with society. I never bothered to explain to them that hippies had been a relatively short-lived cultural phenomenon and that a myriad of other youthful rebellions had followed that one. If they were afraid of hippies, I can only imagine their response to punks or to goth.

When I was young, they were intimidating, their lack of rationality annoying. Grandma died after I began graduate school and Aunt Sue died soon after her. During the last years before their deaths, I viewed them in a slightly different light. Perhaps insight comes mostly with age and maturity, perhaps my women’s studies courses paid off in ways I never intended. Whatever the reason, I began to enjoy talking to them. They asked about me and what I was thinking, they even asked about college and what I was learning. In turn, I asked them more questions, gaining a newfound appreciation for their fierce faith and for their refusal to allow anyone to define themselves. At times, I still found their proclamations amusing or perplexing or worse, but I lost the desire to tell them just how discombobulated their world seemed to me.

What if these two women had been born in a different time, family, or place? Would they have grasped the meaning of feminism and understood the validity of women’s choice? Perhaps they clung to the bible and proclaimed their beliefs loudly because they intuited that they lived at a distance from their own stated ideals. Perhaps coca cola was a metaphor for the damaging nature of the obedience and the abnegation that was demanded of them; perhaps they railed at hippies to keep themselves from examining their own inconsistencies.

Their legacy to me was, quite possibly, at variance with what they might have hoped. Or perhaps they would have been pleased to know that I find comfort in their display of strength and stubbornness. And conversely and by virtue of the lack thereof, they instilled in me a strong desire to learn, to reason, to question.

For both gifts, I thank them.


“Death by Corn Candy,”

“Death by Corn Candy,”

in Flash Nonfiction: Food, Woodhall Press, 2020

“Death by Corn Candy,”

in Flash Nonfiction: Food, Woodhall Press, 2020

All her life, Colleen had a fondness for a conflation of food and ritual: a family fondue on New Year’s Eve, cinnamon rolls every Sunday morning, chocolate for all celebrations, a cup of dark roast coffee shared with friends just because. Normally frugal to a fault, she spared no cost for the food and drink that she shared with others.

At our last Thanksgiving meal together, when it was difficult for her to stand up for more than five minutes at a time, she stood up long enough to prepare the turkey with her husband’s assistance. She placed herbs and garlic under the skin, then filled it with a special sausage and mushroom stuffing. The rest of us assembled the remainder of the feast: the vegetarian offerings, several sides, and the pumpkin and pecan pies. We did not do it alone, however. Colleen directed our efforts with the precision of a choreographer. She sent her brother out for the best wine. We roasted the Brussels sprouts to her exact specifications and assembled a grated carrot salad from her grandmother’s vintage family recipe that had never been written down. She supervised the bread baking with her own special recipe; we kneaded until she said “enough.”

Even though we knew we it was unlikely that we would ever share another Thanksgiving meal, we did not know that it would be our last supper, our final breaking of bread.

A few weeks later, just before emergency tracheotomy surgery that would prevent the cancer cells from closing off her throat and suffocating her, we talked on the phone. Knowing that after the surgery she would be unable to speak or swallow, we savored the details of our Thanksgiving gathering while I absorbed the last time I would hear her voice, certainly for months, possibly forever. She recounted in full our Thanksgiving weekend together, how we drove into the mountains, how the sunshine of the late November day had been so welcome after the gray and rainy days of autumn. How the feast gave her such joy, coming in a brief interlude between her bout of chemo-induced thrush and her pre-Christmas tracheotomy.

At the end of our conversation, Colleen added wistfully, “And to think that our Thanksgiving fondue was the last fondue I’ll ever share with you.” A family tradition on New Year’s Eve, we opted for a pre-Thanksgiving fondue, as if we knew we wouldn’t be able to do it on the first day of the coming year. It was this thought, the assertion that we might never share another fondue that halted our conversation as we recognized what this meant.

Post-surgery she endured her tube feedings, each one preceded by a careful inspection by the hospice nurse of the contents of her stomach. Nutrients without flavor; calories without joy. Her brother, Doug, stood by her bed, sipping on a cup of espresso when she reached for him, pointing to the packages of sponges on her bedside table. She wrote “taste” on the whiteboard, now her only means of communication. He picked up the small sponge on a stick, the one we used to moisten her mouth. Like a priest offering communion, he dipped it solemnly into the coffee and held it out to her. Her tongue glided over the sponge, her expression revealing a momentary spark of joy.

She sent us off to lunch, facetiously giving us whiteboard instructions to “get the best the hospital cafeteria offers.” If she could not eat, she would partake vicariously, even if the food didn’t meet her usual standards. When we got back to the room Doug held a cup of corn candy, the only “dessert” he could find that sounded better than the cafeteria’s selections of gelatin, pudding, or sad-looking pieces of pie. She pointed at his cup and wrote “what is it?” He held out a piece, which she took and licked slowly.

She grinned and scribbled “death by corn candy,” on the whiteboard, then closed her eyes again, exhausted but satisfied.

“The Black Box”

“The Black Box”

Esthetic Apostle, June 2018

“The Black Box”

Esthetic Apostle, June 2018

With head bowed, he slid stealthily onto the church bench in the living room of a neighbor’s home. He narrowly evaded tripping on a shoelace, marching behind a boy dressed exactly like himself: white cotton shirt, suspenders, barn-door pants — the good pair that he saved for Sunday which was exactly like his work pair minus the aroma of manure.

They sat together in a row, little boys as quiet as proverbial church mice knowing that the slightest snicker, scratch, or unintended slump, would translate into hellish retribution at home. As the Amish bishop’s son, he had to set an example. The other boys could not compete with his ability to sit perfectly still, but then their slip-ups were never so costly as his. With any complaint, his dad would administer an unforgettable whipping. So he sat quietly and daydreamed about dashing past admiring English girls on his horse. No one could know what was in his mind. While he daydreamed he kept his eyes open so as not to fall off the bench and to appear to be listening.

The other teenagers hated his obedience. His father, on the other hand, constantly rebuked him for sneezing in church or for other infractions such as forgetting to feed the cows on time. He listened to his father preach, gory biblical stories of fire and blood, severed foreskins, and wars. It all made him a bit queasy. He searched for incentives to remain within the confines of the simple life, but the only reason he had to stay was that it was too painful to leave.

The woman he married silently cooked his dinners precisely to his satisfaction and gave birth to his children year after year. He struggled to recapture the joy of his daydreams in church. In his mind, he once again pictured freedom, felt it stir his hair even while the sickening recognition settled deep into his bones that liberty and choice existed only in some vague and far off place, residing in the far corners of his imagination. The image of his wife and her delicious meals slowly dissolved into his memory of hard benches and long sermons from his youth.

So he told her they were leaving the church and her few friends, taking all seven children with them. We will buy a car and read by fluorescent light, he told her. We will find other friends. He felt woozy and became light-headed, emboldened by the power he wielded over his own little fiefdom of family and farm.

The loneliness got to him, however, along with the derision he felt from his neighbors. His domain continued to crumble. His teenaged sons cursed him for beating their mother. His wife continued to walk silently a few feet behind him. He sensed that what little he had gathered over the years was slipping away.

With his children grown and his farm sold out from beneath his feet, he cursed the bank that now owned it and ventured out in new directions. He peddled Blue Stuff, sold used cars, and drove a garbage truck. Mostly he hated his life. No one wanted to buy from or hire him, a dirty, old, disreputable ex-Amishman. And whoever heard, they murmured behind his back, of a dirty, lazy Amishman, even if he was an ex? He heard them; they made no attempt to be discreet.

One day late in his life, he sat tinkering in the workshop that he had built beside his house. Inside these four walls, he had located one space where he felt completely at home. In here, he was spared the way people averted their eyes when he passed them on Main Street. He was finishing a cedar chest he had designed for his granddaughter, the only person who liked him just because he was her grandpa.

Without forethought, he began to make another box out of wood scraps. Freed from planning and vision, he steadily created it. It was not large, just a foot in each direction. Nothing fancy, a few hinges and a lock. It must be plain, that he knew, although he had no real reason for that. He picked up the closest paint can (it happened to be black) and finished it off.

It was not until he landed in jail that he really stopped to contemplate his creation. He had intended to use the box to heal himself by extending it to others for their healing, his offering of forgiveness for all they had done to him over the years. Even then, he knew they would refuse his gift so he took it to a neighboring community. There he offered it to people who, he believed, would not reject him, to people who did not know him and who were looking for cures to one malady or another, cures that did not involve insulin or antibiotics or radiation. People, in other words, more desperate than himself.

He told them to call him “doctor,” asked for some faith. He required only a strand of hair or perhaps a toenail, which he placed lovingly in the Black Box and prayed over it. Now, he reasoned, the world would see his true essence, recognize his goodness, acknowledge his power to heal. And with physical healing, perhaps they would forgive him for all those other things: for sitting too still and for not sitting still enough, for forgetting to feed the cows, for beating his wife, for being dirty and lazy, for losing his farm.

But they did not forgive him. Some of them laughed. One person called the police. Now here he was awaiting trial for medical fraud. And all he had wanted was one simple thing. Why could no one understand that it was all a 70-year-old man needed, just like anyone else?

But they were blinded by their goodness, while he was on his way to prison.


“Angelo Avenue Angels”

“Angelo Avenue Angels”

Pacific Journal, Fall 2022

“Angelo Avenue Angels”

Pacific Journal, Fall 2022

When I first met him, Doug was living on Angelo Avenue in East Oakland where he shared a street with a bunch of bikers (Hell’s Angels, no less) and one demented old woman. It was an odd situation, a bit unnerving. My midwestern impression of biker gangs came from television shows like Rockford Files where Jim is surrounded by long-haired, heavily-tattooed men slouching on their Harleys and taunting him. The rest of what I thought I knew came from news reports of Sonny Barger, crime sprees with sawed-off pool cues as weapons, murders, drugs, and such like. A sign down the street read, “No Parking Except Authorized Hell’s Angels.” I thought it was an attempt at a joke, but I wasn’t sure it was funny.

Doug was a skinny, intellectual, flute-playing pacifist. The polar-opposite of men in biker gangs. The fact that these guys were his neighbors didn’t concern to him, however. “They leave me alone and I leave them alone,” he told me. “Besides, I don’t have to worry about anyone stealing my old Corolla. People are afraid to drive down this street.”

Their denim jackets sported One-Percent and Death Head insignias, and of course, they all rode Harleys. They were bearded, long-haired men with gravelly voices, whose chain-smoking women followed them around. They told crude jokes (mostly about women, sex, and liberals) and we seldom saw them without an open can of Coors beer in hand. The Coors stood out to me, because this was when we were getting into a boycott of the company, reading up on Joseph and William Coors’ support for the Moral Majority and the Nicaraguan Contras, their union-busting tactics, and flagrantly racist statements about minorities.

The street was narrow and they used it not only to park, but also to work on their bikes, making it difficult to maneuver around the bikes and wrenches and tires that filled the street. When we sat on the front steps to escape the heat and cockroaches in Doug’s studio apartment, I aimed for minimal eye contact. Not Doug. Normally a bit shy, he brushed it aside to say hi and ask for advice on repairing his Toyota. “Why would you do that?” I nagged, worrying that it was naive of him, or worse, just plain crazy. These were proud-to-be-drivingAmerican men who made it clear that they supported President Reagan because, “He kicked the asses of those spineless weaklings up at Berkeley.” The rest of what they said about “those spineless weaklings” was a bit more, shall we say, colorful.

I wasn’t really afraid of them; I just thought there were some barriers one simply did not cross. On the other hand, I also held to some amorphous ideal about the unity of all humanity. This, I must admit, created a bit of an internal struggle for me.

I lived there one summer, exploring the Bay Area while Doug worked. In the mornings on my way to the bus stop, I often passed the little old woman in a small, immaculate yard behind a white picket fence. She lived across the street from Jim, the Angel in charge of most things that happened on the street. Her name was Gerda and she would chatter as long as I stood and listened. Mostly, she talked about her dead husband who, at times, was alive and well in her stories and in her mind.

Her other topic was that the FBI was after her, hiding in her bushes. Somewhere during the conversation, she would hand me a handful of small pebbles and ask me to please help her run them off her property. I’d accept her pebbles and then watch while she waged her campaign to rid her yard and this entire street of the G-Men who were out to get her. She pelted and tossed, although what ran out of the bushes and down the street were just her many cats.

Over time, I began to notice that it was the Hell’s Angel guys who trimmed her bushes and mowed her lawn. Several times I saw them replacing one of her windows when her anti-government missile had missed the intended target and shattered her own glass instead. I worked up the courage to ask Jim about it one day.

“No,” he told me, “she’s no relation to any of us. She was here when we got here. In fact, she’s been here since she got married back in ‘41, just before the war. But her own damned kid doesn’t visit no more, not even at Christmas. If I ever see him, I plan to tell him what I think of him.”

One evening when Doug and I were getting ready to go see Kiss of the Spider Woman at the University Avenue Theatre, we heard the siren of an ambulance coming closer. It stopped at Gerda’s place, so we wandered down to see what was going. She had fallen and broken her hip. Jim was barking orders to the irritated EMTs, giving not-so-polite admonitions to be careful with her, demanding meticulous care. He held Gerda’s hand, assuring her that everything would be alright. “We’ll feed your cats,” he promised her. “Just you get better and get back here before they miss you. And while you’re gone, we’ll keep those damned G-Men out of your bushes, too.”

“You’re such a good boy,” Gerda told this aging biker.

After the ambulance left, everyone began to dribble back to their own porches. It would be impossible to catch the movie as we had planned, but we thought we could still make the late show, so we turned to go, too.

“Hey, wait,” Jim barked after us. Walking back toward him, I held back a hysterical giggle, wondering what he could possibly want. Was he angry with us? Had we said something wrong to Gerda? Was he tired of our bumper sticker for world peace? Standing in front of me, his 6 feet-2 inch, 220-pound frame blocking the streetlight behind him, I searched for some clue but found nothing.

When we got closer, he spoke again, “Baked some cherry crisp this afternoon. Come have some with me.”


“Mennonites Writing in the Information Age”

“Mennonites Writing in the Information Age”

Journal of Mennonite Writing, v. 11, #4, 2019

“Mennonites Writing in the Information Age”

Journal of Mennonite Writing, v. 11, #4, 2019

I looked at my phone, it was sitting on the counter in airplane mode. I had been offline for seventy-two hours and can remember feeling that this should be counted among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times.” (Zadie Smith, in Swing Time.)

In the winter of 2018, a post popped up on my Facebook feed, a friend’s repost of an article by an evangelical pastor, in which the pastor stated that he did not understand progressive Christians who cry about the children in cages at the border, but care nothing for the lives of aborted babies. My chest tightened into a deep and unforgiving pain at the false equivalency. Responses to the post poured a chorus of “amens” down the Facebook feed and out into a world of deep societal divides. I deliberated. Do I respond to my Facebook “friend?” I have responded to her on other topics. She is, without a doubt, a kind and caring person, but we seldom see eye to eye.

Such is the dilemma of our lives in the Age of Information and on social media. To be sure, we’ve long worried about what topics to avoid over Thanksgiving feasts with our families, but there is a strange new immediacy to our quandaries. Our interactions have moved beyond our dining room tables and holiday meals, broadening the cycles of conflict as we struggle to maintain civility and encourage compassion. The paradox is that our online world brings people together in a screen presence while simultaneously driving an ever-growing wedge between us.

We live with instant connections to far-flung people as well as connections to those near and dear to us. We find ourselves arguing points of politics and theology with the “friend” of a “friend” on Facebook, a designation that (by the transitive property of equality) should make us all friends, right? We email our family or, in an act of defiant resistance, we self-righteously place a stamp on an envelope, sending handwritten notes through the postal service. We post pictures of our daily life on Instagram, sharing intimate news with god-knows-who. We get our news in online newspapers. We laugh at or sigh over a meme that travels the internet at the speed of light, depending on whether it fits our worldview or demonstrates all that (to us) is wrong with society.

When thinking about the Information Age, we could be referring to the technology that underlies information, whether that is a pen or if it is the bits and bytes of the computer hard/software; to the data arranged in the bits and bytes to form the social media outlets that we use; to the structure that arranges the information for ease of access; or to the knowledge, the interpretation or evaluation of the data that we seek out. And, of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that tucked in among all of this resides a plethora of mis/disinformation, a daunting aspect of our post-truth, fake-news society.

If we are stressed or distressed about the direction of the world in the Information Age, it is worth noting that those layers (right down to the disinformation) have always been there. Whether we are studying petroglyphs on rock walls or deciphering a flag semaphore, when we look up a word in the Oxford English Dictionary or write an entry for GAMEO, whether we are studying genes or passing along a meme, when we look for a book using Library of Congress subject headings or are understanding an article with a word cloud, those are all our attempts to navigate the entropy of information. And, if we are honest (and knowledgeable), we have to admit that there has always been misinformation through manipulation, editing, splicing, altering or omitting the context, erroneous and misleading juxtaposition. It’s just that now we have access to clickbait (with specific nefarious purposes) on a 24/7 basis while sitting at our kitchen table or in the middle of a sleepless night.

In the 1940s, the mathematician, Claude Shannon, struggled to come up with a term for the Information Age. He said that information is complex and it consists of four qualities: difficulty, uncertainty, entropy, and chaos[1]. His description mirrors Jorge Luis Borges’s library in his story “Library of Babel” which was written at nearly the same time. Borges describes the joy people experience at the thought of access to all knowledge, a joy that quickly degenerates into a brawling free-for-all where pilgrims “proffered dark curses, strangled each other on divine stairways…”[2] Sound familiar?

When I began to consider what it means to write in the Age of Information, I began with (what else?) a Google search. (So shoot me— I also used scholarly databases). What I found was a preponderance of articles and blog posts, cries and laments about information overload with all the other names that could be applied to it: the information flood, information tsunami, information deluge, information explosion, information anxiety, infoxication, infobesity, death by information overload. Too much information, it would appear, is more than just a saying (“TMI”) to hurl at someone who is revealing excessively-private aspects of their lives. It is now a disaster of unprecedented proportions and we are all going to be undone (in some pretty serious ways) by our ready access to too much information. Whether “too much information” is disaster, disease, and diabolical plot or whether it denotes connection to others and access to all knowledge (or somewhere in between) depends on your worldview, your coping mechanisms, your investment in social media. And that doesn’t begin to lay bare the horror of the post-truth, fake-news, junk news, pseudo-news threats to Democracy that come as a result of our ready access to TOO MUCH INFORMATION.

Before we burrow into a den of despair over this terrifying state of affairs, it’s important to know at least a little history. Ann Blair, a Harvard historian of Early/Modern Europe writes that information overload has long been the cry of the people[3]. Associating information overload with new digital technologies might miss something. Blair quotes the writer of Ecclesiastes who states, “Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Plato, when writing down what Socrates said about literacy and the deficiencies of writing, added that writing will have a deleterious effect by causing people to forget to use their memories and they will forget everything they learned. In 1255, Vincent of Beauvais decried “the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory.” In the fifteenth century, when the Gutenberg press made it possible to turn out thousands of books, the literate classes of Europe felt as overloaded by information as we do. Erasmus lamented, “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books[4]?”

But Blair also notes that previous societies dealt with their anxieties by developing methods to deal with the overload of information. They wrote bibliographies, built libraries, compiled encyclopedias and concordances, gave advice on taking notes, created indexes and outlines, developed subject headings. In other words, they set about organizing information so that it could be accessed and understood. They figured out how to set out sandbags to alter the flow of the flood and save scholars from drowning in too much information. With the long story of humans fretting about information overload comes an equally lengthy history of people learning to manage it.

It is true that there are a few differences in our present Age of Information. Earlier floods of information were experienced by the literate class, in comparison to the democratization of information today. Also, there is the immediacy of our access to information in our current milieu, with its instantaneous access wherever we are, at any time of day. The almighty search engines are as close as our omnipresent cell phones. Even with those differences, knowing the history might help us find more nuanced ways to talk and write about it, fresher approaches to living with it. Our limited minds can never take in all the information that is available—but we never could take it all in. Our current dilemma, however magnified and heightened it might feel to us, stretches backward from Google all the way to the library of Alexandria.

The worry, of course, comes when we see how the shadowy forces use memes to attract young disgruntled Caucasian males into a world of white supremacy. Or how the strategic placement of clickbait sways elections. A president “rules” by tweets, while denigrating the media as fake news. And then there is the way we ourselves interact with the posts of our Facebook friends— and friends of friends. The internet exacerbates the negative, perpetuates the lies, carries our conflicts into ever-wider circles of acquaintances. James Gleick says, “On a bad day, a meme is a virus,” a statement, which in turn suggests that there might also be good days[5].

And there are the good days. The same ready access that could be our downfall provides us with a connection to the world beyond our neighborhood, the ability to make changes in ways we could previously only dream about. For example, in the summer of 2018, after the egregious separation of children from parents at the U.S./Mexico border, a group of librarians and scholars who were in despair over the horror being perpetrated, asked themselves what they could do. They set to work utilizing basic techniques of library science and organization to track the placement of children across the United States. Within several weeks, barely taking time to sleep or eat, these researchers created a map of routes and locations of placement, information that was extremely useful for organizations overwhelmed by the struggle to provide services and support for the affected families. Without the internet, this information would have taken years to accumulate, or would even have been impossible[6].

An example closer to home is the website Our Stories Untold. The importance of bringing those stories of sexual abuse together in a readily-available blog is summed up in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, words that the website writers deemed important enough to place at the top of the page, “There is no agony like having an untold story inside you.” The website brings together the stories, the resources, and the support that makes it possible for people to share their pain-filled stories and begin to find healing and hope in a world and in a church that has not been willing to listen to them[7].

Marshall McLuhan wrote that “electronic man is no less a nomad than his paleolithic ancestors.” Non-inclusive language aside (he wrote it in 1967), we are internet nomads in search of green pastures. As we wander the internet,what questions can we ask? Could writers serve as the “wandering decoders” of Borges’s library? How do Mennonite writers navigate the quagmire? What do we have to offer that is counter-cultural without being an avoidance mechanism (a skill we’ve acquired along the way)? And is there such a thing as a Mennonite meme—or why should we even care?

“Mennonite Women and World War II”

“Mennonite Women and World War II”


California Mennonite Historical Society Bulletin, no. 40, Spring 2004

“Mennonite Women and World War II”


California Mennonite Historical Society Bulletin, no. 40, Spring 2004

(Cover photo credit: Christine (Janzen) Moyer)

Cover photo caption: Pearl and Victor Janzen’s 1943 wedding took place in the Hill City (SD) Civilian Public Service Camp.  Their “wedding trip”  consisted of a wheelbarrow ride around the camp.

Mennonite women and World War II: braving others’ objections to follow their consciences.

In his article, “Sewing Peace,” Brian Froese writes about the Mennonite women of California who became engaged in World War II through the work of the sewing circles in their local churches. Another group of women, smaller in numbers, became involved outside their home communities. During the war, more than 2,000 women, members of the Historic Peace Churches from across
the United States, became part of Civilian Public Service (CPS) as conscientious objectors to war. According to Mennonite historian, Rachel Waltner Goosen, conscription only involved men, but Civilian Public Service was not exclusively male.1 Many women went to be with their husbands who had been conscripted; a few women went alone, citing personal convictions. Some worked in the camps while others found employment in nearby towns.

The women who were part of CPS have many stories to tell regarding life during WWII. The war left indelible and lifelong impressions on these women’s lives when they moved around the country and encountered new situations. Like the men of CPS, the women walked against the mainstream of society and their communities, and at times, even against that of their churches or families. In vivid detail, they recall the misunderstanding and ridicule that they faced on occasion. Even though it was not an easy time in their lives, the women believed (then and now) that they were doing the right thing as they followed the dictates of their consciences.

Following are several stories of Reedley women who lived in or near camps during WWII. One woman worked in both a CPS camp and a Japanese relocation camp. These were lifealtering experiences as the women traveled to new places, met new people, and explored a world of new ideas. These accounts are based on oral interviews.2

Florence Auernheimer Gomez

(1907-2003) • First Mennonite Church, Reedley, California (Based on an interview with Florence’s sister, Selma Auernheimer, July 2003)

At the beginning of World War II, Florence Auernheimer was a kindergarten teacher in Reedley, California. With the entry of the United States into the war, the district superintendent of schools called on teachers to encourage their students to sell war bonds. Florence refused to participate in this endeavor, citing her conviction as a conscientious objector to war. Furthermore, she believed that the children in her kindergarten class were too young to understand the meaning of war bonds and therefore could not be asked to sell them.

For her repudiation of his request, the superintendent fired Florence. Despite her love of teaching, Florence knew that it would not be easy to get a job of her first choice, particularly with the dismissal on her record so she looked elsewhere. When she
heard that the Camino (California) Civilian Public Service camp needed a dietitian, Florence chose to go there. After part of a year as the Camino dietitian and cook, the state superintendent of schools called on Florence, asking her to consider teaching school at the Tule Lake Project, a Japanese relocation camp near Newell, California. It was not easy to find teachers who were willing to work in the camps but Florence was ready. She taught at Tule Lake for the remainder of the war.

In September 1943, when Florence arrived at Tule Lake she saw immediately that the living conditions were unhealthy. In particular, some of the structures were incomplete, making it impossible to heat the living quarters adequately. Throughout
her first winter at Tule Lake Florence witnessed much illness. When one young girl died of pneumonia, Florence determined
once again to take action. Cognizant of her own power as a teacher where few people wanted to teach, Florence threatened to quit if the government did not finish the rooms and provide sufficient heating. It was not long before they complied. This change could not alter the indignities and the pain of forced internment, but Florence had done her part to make life a bit more bearable for the Japanese-Americans who spent time there.

Pearl Miereau Janzen

First Mennonite Church, Reedley, California
(Based on an interview with Pearl Janzen, November 2002)

When Pearl Miereau was a teenager during the depression in her hometown of Henderson, Nebraska, she innocently suggested that her brother, a tuba player, join the army marching band to earn some money. Her parents’ reaction was immediate and unambiguous. Becoming part of the military—even if only the band—was not an option.

A few years later, the discussion of joining the military became a personal issue when Pearl and her fiancé, Victor Janzen, faced his conscription during World War II. As they pondered the implications of the choice between military or alternative service, Pearl and Vic, with the support of their parents, understood that the young couple would follow a path that would not be easy. They would perform alternative service administered by their church.

Despite their parents’ encouragement, when Pearl and Vic talked about this decision with other members of their church or with friends from the community the discussions took some difficult turns. An uncle told them that he could kill for his country and implied that they too should be willing. A rift developed when Pearl’s best friend married a soldier. Others in church joined the military even though their church advocated alternative service. Community reactions were strong and negative toward conscientious objectors.

When Vic was drafted, his local draft board denied him his right to register as a conscientious objector, a decision that was overturned on appeal. Shortly after he left for alternative service, Pearl joined him and they were married at the Hill City (South Dakota) CPS camp where he worked. Pearl lived and worked in nearby towns throughout most of the first years of their marriage. The only exception was during their time at the Downey (Idaho) CPS camp. There Pearl worked as a dietitian and lived in the camp along with their oldest daughter Carolyn.

When Pearl ponders her life as a conscientious objector during WWII, she remembers the clarity of her conviction but also the pain that accompanied it. “People often asked us why we did not support the war and why Vic wasn’t in the army,” she says, “and they seldom liked our answer.” Animosity was visible in their community where people were grieving the loss of family members in the military. “Even the movies and popular songs praised the soldiers,” Pearl continues, “and all of that added up to a lot of pressure.” Despite opposition from community and societal glorification of war, Pearl and Vic remained united in their beliefs.

It was a rewarding time, if a difficult one, a period of their lives that Pearl now believes stretched them, deepening their convictions and setting the tenor of their faith and lives. They built new friendships and learned to know people from across the country. “I wouldn’t trade that time for anything,” Pearl says. “I grew up there.”

Lu Kliewer Klassen

Reedley Mennonite Brethren Church
(Based on an interview with Lu Klassen, February 2003)

As with so many women, World War II fostered significant changes in Lu Kliewer’s life. This young woman from Reedley who had never ventured beyond Fresno and Tulare Counties recalls, “I was even afraid at the thought of going to Sacramento.” When the need arose, however, Lu overcame her fears to travel by train across the United States to meet her husband, Herk Klassen, in Maryland. After a few years in Maryland, they moved to a CPS placement in Wisconsin for the duration of the war.

Initially, Herk’s assignment was to the Camino (California) Civilian Public Service camp east of Sacramento. It was while he was there that Herk and Lu decided to get married. After a flurry of preparations, the wedding took place during one of his all-too-brief leaves of absence. It was only a few days before the scheduled wedding, however, when they found out whether he would
be allowed to leave camp to return to Reedley for it.

Shortly after their wedding, Herk transferred to the Clear Spring (Maryland) CPS camp where he worked at the Farm and Community School. Soon Lu decided to take the train across the country to be near him. “At this time in my life,” Lu states, “I
had never been out of California. I found out at choir practice that Mr. Eitzen, a missionary to the Belgian Congo, was leaving
Reedley to go to Pennsylvania so I asked him if he would mind having a travel companion.” He agreed and Lu rode the train with
him to Chicago where Herk met her. For the duration of the war, Lu, like many other wives of conscientious objectors, lived and
worked near the CPS camp where her husband was stationed.

Lu remembers this as a time when she met new people. “The East Coast Mennonites were not like the Mennonites I knew at home but we became good friends.” Even greater were the differences between Lu and her employers. “Mrs. Grice was kind to me,” Lu says, “but her daughter lived with her and she was different. She objected to my Mennonite friends. ” Among other things, Lu had to defend her reason for refusing to work on Sunday.

Occasionally, they encountered ridicule for being conscientious objectors, but Lu and Herk continued to believe that they needed to take this stand. “I certainly couldn’t see Herk going out and killing anyone,” Lu says. Lu worked at a variety of jobs over the next several years. She was a live-in housekeeper, a telephone switchboard operator and finally, with the birth of their first child, she stayed at home to care for their daughter, along with the infant daughter of another CPS family.

When Lu talks about the formation of life-long friendships during her first time away from California, she echoes a common theme among women who were associated with Civilian Public Service. Lu kept in touch with many of these newfound friends throughout her lifetime.

Within these few years, Lu went from a young woman who trembled at the thought of change to one who traveled far, courageously meeting new people and experiencing unfamiliar ways of thinking. The time she spent in CPS solidified her beliefs. “It was a million dollar experience,” she said, “but I wouldn’t give a nickel for another one like it.”

1 – See Rachel Waltner Goosen’s book, Women Against the Good War: Conscientious Objection and Gender on the American Home Front, 1921-1947, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

2 – According to Goosen, men’s war memoirs have defi ned the experience of WWII. For women and for pacifi sts there are few such memoirs. Historians have come to rely on oral histories, with all the accompanying limitations, for information on women’s experiences of WWII.

“Anabaptism, Peacemaking, and the Study of History: Peter J. Klassen Reflects on his Life and Career”

California Mennonite Historical Society Bulletin, #51, Fall 2009

Around 1980, when I was an undergraduate history and religion student at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) I took a course from Professor James C. Spalding called “The German Churches Under Hitler.” As I began to think about a topic for the paper that
Spalding required, I decided to see how Mennonites had responded to the rise of National Socialism in Germany. When I approached Dr. Spalding, he suggested that I consider contacting Mennonite historians, particularly historians of Mennonites in Europe. One of the names that came up was that of Dr. Peter J. Klassen at California State University, Fresno.

As chance would have it, I was rooming with a woman who had graduated from Fresno State a few years prior and who knew Dr. Klassen. She told me that he was someone who would be happy to hear from me and willing to steer me in the right direction. I wrote to him and he answered almost immediately with a number of suggestions on where and how to proceed. I still have his gracious reply in my files.

Twenty years later, upon moving to Fresno following an East Coast sojourn, I met Dr. Klassen for the first time when I joined the California Mennonite Historical Society as editor of the CMHS Bulletin. Now, nearly thirty years after my undergraduate correspondence with Dr. Klassen, I had the privilege of interviewing him regarding the trajectory of his life and career. This comes close upon the heels of the publication of his latest book, Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia, in April 2009. [See
Sam Myovich’s review of Klassen’s book later in this issue of the Bulletin.]

Dr. Klassen was born in Crowfoot, Alberta, across the road from the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. Early in his life, he learned their story through the monument erected in the name of the tribal chief who had brokered a peace treaty with the British. This story was only one of many that fostered within him curiosity for the world around him.

In his one-room grade school, Klassen’s propensity for history meant that the teacher often called upon him to help teach younger schoolmates. Even so, an aptitude test revealed that his mind would be well-suited to a career in mathematics. Although he would have made an excellent mathematician, his subsequent study, research, and analysis of history has been a benefit to Mennonites and to historians everywhere.

At the University of British Columbia, a professor of ancient history was instrumental in Dr. Klassen’s decision to pursue the study of history. He entered Fuller Theological Seminary with the intention of studying theology and church history. Two years later at the University of Southern California his focus was the Reformation.

Following is my interview with Dr. Klassen, which took place August 20, 2009, in my office at the Hiebert Library at Fresno Pacific University/Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary.

Hope Nisly: What led you to an interest in history (in general) and Anabaptist/Polish history (specifically)?
Peter Klassen: As a boy in Alberta I attended a school that had only a tiny library, but it did have a set of historical encyclopedias
which I read from beginning to end. Later tests showed that mathematics was my strong area and I intended to pursue this discipline; however, the influence of one professor caused me to redirect and at university I took a double major in English and in history.

When I was quite young, a colporteur-minister came to my church with a book on Menno Simons. I bought it from him and he
told me that I was the first person of my age to whom he had sold one. I still have the book, one of my first history purchases.

Having chosen to specialize in the Reformation in graduate studies, I was fortunate to find a stimulating professor in church history at USC, Dr. Charles M. Nielsen. Dr. Nielsen encouraged me in the history of Anabaptism and introduced me to others working in that area, such as George Williams, Roland Bainton, and Harold S. Bender

I maintained mail contact with these men throughout my career. As I began work on my latest book [Mennonites in Early Modern
Poland and Prussia], I had questions and turned to Dr. Williams for advice. Williams was now in a nursing home on the East Coast,
but he responded with a handwritten letter that helped me work through some lines of thought. I did not study at Goshen, but professor Harold Bender also gave me advice and through him I became especially interested in Anabaptist history. On several occasions, I chatted with Roland Bainton who gave me much needed encouragement. It was Dr. Bainton who told me of new documents being discovered in the area of Anabaptist history that needed analysis. He encouraged me to go to see them
in Europe.

HN: Tell me about your motivation to form a California Mennonite Historical Society.
PK: Even though I was the first chair of that group, there were many others who had a role in its formation. One was Henry Krahn,
history professor here at what was then Pacific College. Some of like mind were John E. Toews, Arthur Wiebe, and John Redekop. With support and motivation of others in the church community, we decided to form a historical society. Also of significance was J. B. Toews’ arrival at the seminary and leadership in expanding interest in Anabaptism.

We began by inviting recognized scholars in church history to speak to us. We had thinkers, theologians and historians such as John Howard Yoder, Myron Augsburger, Cornelius Krahn, John B. Toews of Canada, and David Rempel, a recognized authority on the Russian Mennonite story. These were scholars who brought us unique insights into Mennonite history and theology.

In that early period George Neufeld, at that time a volunteer archivist at Pacific, and I visited David Rempel at his home. We obtained some of his materials and with them, initiated a collection of Mennonite writings here in the Hiebert Library. At the start we had a few shelves of materials on Mennonite history and thought. In time we were able to gather some very significant documents including the Jacob P. Becker manuscript on the beginnings of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Russia. The document was written in old German script and was later transferred to Tabor, but it began its journey into the library world

HN: In a recent conversation, Paul Toews mentioned something that he called “an Anabaptist renaissance in the Fresno area that fades into the San Joaquin Valley air.” Is that something you could speak to? What does that mean to you?
PK: A number of us tried to broaden and deepen awareness and appreciation of Anabaptism. Paul’s metaphor, however, mirrors a sobering reality. When he came to Pacific he immediately became a significant force in expanding awareness of Anabaptist-Mennonite movement. We found, however, that the climate in many of our churches was not conducive to the growth and expansion of our understanding of the Anabaptist heritage. Congregational agendas usually gave only low priority to Anabaptist values and practices.

Prior to my joining the faculty at Pacific College and while studying at the Goshen archives, I encountered the Concern Group, consisting of persons who were precipitating in an “Anabaptist Renaissance” at Elkhart, Goshen, and beyond. A graduate seminar
was organized by John Howard Yoder, Paul Peachy, C. J. Dyck, Harold S. Bender, Melvin Gingerich, and others. They invited graduate students who were considering teaching in the area of Anabaptist history and theology to participate and I read a paper.

The influence and study of Anabaptism was growing on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in Europe. Yet when I came to Pacific College and the seminary in 1962, very little attention was paid to Anabaptism. Many professors at the seminary had come out of schools that had little theological interest in that field. This was true of both theologians and historians. They were not hostile toward it, but did not consider it to be important. Once discussion of Anabaptism began, it received a warm reception. Certainly the coming of J. B. Toews in the 1960s had a tremendous impact, for he was vigorously involved and soon courses in Anabaptist history and thought were introduced.

It was this surge in interest in Anabaptism in the 1960s and ‘70s that helped to bring a new awareness of our faith heritage. A personal belief in Christ, evidenced by baptism upon profession of faith and a commitment to following Christ were at the heart of this position.

HN: How might your view of Mennonite history differ with or coincide with the views of another Mennonite Brethren person? Have your views put you at odds with those around you in any way?
PK: One aspect of Anabaptism that tends to polarize is the peace position. Once in the late ‘60s some of us at Pacific College drew up a statement for the annual Pacific District Conference opposing the Vietnam War. Paul Toews, who recently had come to the college,organized a student peace group. At a session of the Pacific District Conference, some members of the group, as well as other supporters, introduced a resolution opposing the Vietnam War. However, conference leaders felt that its presentation would be divisive. Nonetheless, the resolution was presented. The paper was not placed in the official minutes; indeed, it was struck from the record. I cite this to suggest that the traditional Mennonite peace position often encountered less than full support.

Today, many Mennonite Brethren think we can be supportive of our country when it goes to war and that the historical peace position is not a matter of faith. In recent years, a full-page advertisement in the Fresno Bee opposing the war in Iraq bore relatively few Mennonite Brethren signatures. While some may not be for war, there is reticence in expressing this opinion publicly.

HN: What does it mean to you to be a historian? What do you hope for when you write a book or publish an article on some aspect of history?
PK: The first desire is that people will understand and not forget the past. We need to remember that those who launched the Anabaptist movement did so in a hostile environment and that many of the things we hold dear came at considerable price. If we forget that, we might as well forget Hebrews 11 as well.

When I write, it is my hope that I might bring new insights by gathering often unknown information, analyzing it, and making it available. For example, if asked what large country was first to grant people religious toleration, many will say England or the United States. In actuality, it was Poland that wrote religious toleration into its constitution while other states were still imprisoning or executing nonconformists. We hear Polish jokes, but little praise for Poland. One of the side benefits of knowing history is seeing the broad strokes of the past and being able to move forward with appreciation and understanding.

HN: What does it mean to you to be an Anabaptist and a member of the Mennonite Brethren Church?
PK: For me, the Anabaptist Mennonite community of faith is where I am at home. We have a rich heritage and have made important contributions in the area of standing for religious freedom and personal choice. Mennonite Brethren, as part of this larger community, also have a strong tradition of sharing their faith and giving concrete expression to it. Our belief in Christ must lead us to proclamation, help and involvement.

HN: How would you describe the trajectory of your life and career from the vantage point of looking back on many years of work in your chosen profession?
PK: I have been blessed to be able to do things that I enjoy, both professionally and with family. I have been fortunate that my work has enabled me to teach and travel abroad and to dialog with others of differing persuasions. I am grateful for supportive friends who encouraged me to do things on my own and collaboratively.

Much of my church life here has been spent with fellow Christians with whom I have been able to engage in constructive discussions regarding how do God’s work here on earth in the spirit of Christ. We have not always agreed, but have maintained respect for each other since ours is a common task. These associations have enriched me. Finally, as an Anabaptist, I know that all truth does not come through my own tradition and I value opportunities I have had to be influenced by those with different perspectives.

HN: What achievement are you most pleased with in life?
PK: I would have to say that what gives me the most personal satisfaction is my own family, recognizing that this is a gift of God. Over the years, I have often been able to engage in projects that allowed me to travel and work with my wife Nancy, often accompanied by our three sons. In the process, I have been blessed by many treasured friendships. I am happy to have been able to do some writing and that some of what I have written can be used by others and that it is valued and instructive. Now, with the expansion of the family, daughters-in-law and grandchildren bring a delightful new world of experiences.

Hope Nisly is a librarian at Hiebert Library (Fresno Pacific University and Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary) and editor of the CHMS Bulletin.

Selected Bibliography of Works
by Peter J. Klassen

Mennonites in Early Modern Poland and Prussia
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009

The Reformation: Change and Stability
St. Louis: Forum Press,1980

Europe in the Reformation
Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1979

The Economics of Anabaptism, 1525-1560
The Hague and London: Mouton, 1964

Mutual Aid Among the Anabaptists
Bluffton, Ohio: Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, 1963

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