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!

“Are you writing?”

I am frequently asked, “Are you writing?” or a variation of, “What are you writing these days?” The answer is that I haven’t been doing much new writing the past year, except for one essay about Helmut’s death. I have had, however, two projects to focus on, which have given me a sense of schedule and purpose throughout the year, in the gathering, editing, and proofreading functions of writing.

One of these is Return Stroke: essays & memoir, to be published by CMU Press and released in early June. I’m still shaking my head at the surprise of this all. Sue Sorensen, my CMU Press editor for This Hidden Thing (2010), had returned as head of the Press and since we’ve kept in touch, I tossed her an inquiry about a book of nonfiction. Back in 2015 I got a Manitoba Arts Council grant to draft a memoir about our two-and-half years in Paraguay, the most interesting place I’ve lived. I did it, as proposed and promised, but nothing further happened with it. Now I wondered about revising and reducing it, then combining it with some previously published essays as well as other pieces in my files, including the new one on Helmut’s death. Before I quite grasped what was happening, I had a manuscript to her and it was accepted! I’m rather glad, actually, that it unfolded somewhat impulsively, because a book centred in my life feels decidedly more vulnerable than fiction.

I’ll let the Press talk about the book, below. Pre-order information is here. It will also be available through McNally Robinson Booksellers, where I’ll do a Winnipeg launch June 2. I have a local (Delta) event planned for June 9, and one in Abbotsford, date TBA. Thank you for sharing my gratitude–and wee bit of nervousness–about this new book.968A4166-49E0-4164-8018-07571BB46EAD_1_201_a

This is the CMU Press description of the book:

These graceful, probing personal essays by award-winning fiction writer Dora Dueck engage with a diverse range of ideas (becoming a writer, motherhood, mortality, the ethics of biography, a child’s coming-out) because in non-fiction, she writes, “the quest for meaning bows to the experience as it was.” Yet within Return Stroke, one theme in particular does resonate—change. “How wonderful,” the author writes, that our “bits of existence, no matter how ordinary, are available for further consideration—seeing patterns, facing into inevitable death, enjoying the playful circularity of then and now.”

The book’s title, Return Strokethe title of one essay, where it literally refers to lightning—suggests such a dynamic: “When I send inquiry into my past, it sends something back to me.” The topic of memory, in all its malleability, impermanence, and surprising power, is especially central to the collection’s concluding piece, an absorbing memoir of the author’s 1980s life in the Paraguayan Chaco. Whether she is discovering the more meaningful part that imagination holds within her religious faith or relating with astonishing clarity and honesty the experience of giving birth away from her home country, Dora Dueck’s beautifully written essays and memoir make her an insightful and generous companion.