A week in Winnipeg

I spent a week in Winnipeg this June, for two main reasons. One was the burial of my mother’s ashes, in the plot next to my father’s in Glen Eden Cemetery. All but one of my seven siblings attended, from the various provinces where we live, as well as a sister-in-law, niece, nephew, and several cousins. Standing in a circle, we had a short service of remembrance with a tribute prepared by sister Viola, spontaneously added remarks by the rest of us, and songs. After the burial we went to Kildonan Park for picnic snacks prepared by our cousins. That was a good day.

My three sisters and I spent four nights in an AirBnB — a whole house for ourselves. We walked the area, also drove to various spots to re-visit memories. For example, as in the photo above, my sisters having mini-donuts at The Forks. In the photo of three brothers, you may notice they are holding their knees, and it may be because two are having knee surgery soon; knee problems seem to run in our family. What I also notice is that somewhere along the way we all got a lot older.

A second reason for being in Winnipeg was the launch of Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir. I was nervous the day of, mainly wondering if I would have an audience. I did and it went well and I’m grateful. As a writer, I treasure people’s interest and support and do not take it for granted.. Besides reading, I was privileged to engage in conversation with Mary Ann Loewen, editor of two anthologies with U of Regina Press

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Photo capture by Al Doerksen during my reading.

3551E22F-0ADB-4CDE-8B53-75AB5A6A64FCI took advantage of being in Manitoba for a private ceremony as well. I dug a small portion of Helmut’s ashes into the earth between a clump of trees inĀ  Birds Hill Park, a favourite place for both of us over the decades we lived there. Simply a gesture, a tiny remnant, I know, but it gives me great happiness to know that “he” is also there, in that beautiful park.

I was tired after those days, those significant events, and when my siblings left for home, I wondered why I had decided to stay an additional four days and fill my schedule with visits with friends. Every one of those visits turned out to be refreshing and rich in connection, however, even surprising, in that introverts aren’t usually invigorated by a lot of “peopling.” But I was. And the sun shone brilliantly, the trees wore new green, lilacs bloomed abundantly, and there was rhubarb dessert at nearly every meal (and not a single time too many)!

Church in a Barn

Yesterday I went to church in a barn — a big old empty red barn. Light came in through the open door, the windows at one end, and cracks in the walls and ceiling. We sat in circles of lawn chairs. The weather was chilly and rainy, but there were lap blankets to share. It was all quite wonderful — the singing, kids’ story, homily, prayers — and the joy of being together was palpable. Some 90 or so people of the faith community Helmut and I became a part of when we moved to B.C. six years ago, and here we were, meeting in a barn, and I couldn’t help thinking of the early Anabaptists who also met to worship in houses, caves, and barns.

This wasn’t some gimmick to take us back to the sixteenth century, however, because we’re actually kind of homeless at the moment. It’s been a rough couple of months; our former congregation has had a calamitous collapse and the majority of us have left. I don’t want to recount the whole sad story here, except to say that it happened, and since my weblog concerns my life, I need to mention it. (For those interested, journalist John Longhurst documented it at Anabaptist World as well as at his blog. And let me be clear, I stand with our pastors and for LGBTQ inclusion.) There’s plenty of hurt, anger, grief, but community means everything in situations like this, and as I said, yesterday morning the joy lifted into the rafters. The barn belongs to a couple in the group and may be our “cathedral” for a few months, as we continue to process the circumstances and journey into something new, into clarity and forgiveness. 

One thing I did last week to “process” for myself was to sit in my car at the former place and do a quick loose sketch of that beloved building. I’m a person who’s strongly affected by places and spaces. What I mean is, I often have as vivid a memory of the location as the details of what occurred in it. The surround of the environment becomes inseparable from, or even stands in for, what it hosts and contains. Following the lines of the building with my eye and hand, though only approximately for sure, felt like a caress I had to give it in gratitude and farewell. The right side ended up squished into the coils of the sketchbook, but never mind that, it was just a little exercise to help myself on the way!IMG_0860

Small Things Like These

In 2013, I had the happy privilege of a week at The Banff Centre in a short story course with Alexander MacLeod, whose collection Light Lifting had been shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize. I applied for the class specifically because he was the instructor and was thrilled to be accepted.

Besides our sessions as a group of eight, we met with MacLeod individually. I recall asking him in my turn about how to carry what I might call the “burden” of religion in my stories, since they are often set in the Mennonite history and environment I know best. This felt complicated, and I worried, in addition, that they would be too alien to publishers perhaps, the Church being so pervasive, demanding to be critiqued or defended but most of all explained. The gist of the answer, in terms of what he may have said and what I’ve figured out myself, was that you simply let the story swim in its own ocean. Let it unfold, that is, with whatever the story requires, which probably isn’t a history lesson on Menno Simons or doctrines or the schism that accounts for the group to which the protagonist belongs or may be fleeing.

contentHe also gave me a good piece of advice, and that was to read Irish writers, for if there’s a place that’s religion-soaked, it’s theirs. So I’ve watched for them since, and read quite a few. Which brings me to Claire Keegan, whom he praised and whose work I’ve followed, and her newest book, Small Things Like These. It’s a short book, only 114 pages, but perfectly realized in my opinion, just oh so good! I felt I’d held my breath to the end, and then, exhaling, I began again from the beginning. I think that the main character, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, a tender man, both brave and probably foolish, will stay with me a long time. The story is about who he is and about something he discovers when delivering coal to the local convent, which runs one of those Magdalen laundries for so-called “fallen women,” such as featured in the movie Philomena. This isn’t much of a review, I know, but it’s a definite recommendation. I also recommend Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Keegan at Writers and Company, where they talk about the writing of short stories (their difference from novels), and about this book and some of Keegan’s earlier work.

Incidentally, I’ve begun Alexander MacLeod’s newest collection, Animal People. Like his father Alistair, he’s not a prolific writer, but he’s worth waiting for.

Also incidentally, a story of mine, Her Own Self, has just been posted at the online Journal of Mennonite Writing. It’s longish, though not as longish as Keegan’s, and I would be honoured if you put your feet up with a cuppa something at your side and give it a read!