What she left

“What will I leave of myself?” asked nurse and poet Christine Wiebe (1954-2000) in her journal. The question found its way into a limited edition book, “How to Stay Alive,” produced for family and friends, and now into excerpts carried in the latest issue of the online CMW Journal. I hear it, honest and poignant, as it weaves through the 79 online pages of the piece, and through her poems, and as I read her mother Katie Funk Wiebe’s short biography of her daughter, then a short analysis of Christine’s work by Ellen Kroeker (and the poem, “Her Spirit, a Small Bird with Color”), and the reflections of her sister Joanna and Jeff Gundy Christine, and… well the whole issue, in fact.

Christine faced many health challenges, including lupus and heart attacks and eventually the complete collapse of her body and death. She was interested in healing — of others, of herself. She was both Catholic and Mennonite. And most of all she wanted to be a writer. And she struggled — in the way one’s thoughts turn round and round in journal writing — with those dreams (and others) and what might not be accomplished.

On the evidence of these articles, she left more than she knew perhaps, for her mother, sisters, friends, colleagues, clients, especially in terms of personal interaction. But in addition, and here I speak as one of those now reading these gathered words by and about her, these frank and lovely, almost heartbreaking words, I want to answer her, you left us all this: a gift of what you saw and strove for and accepted.

I close with one whimsical foretaste of Christine’s art and poetry from her journal (used with permission):

Everyone has an angel.
Angels have friends.
Imagine all the angels around
your bed
before you sleep.

Short stories: to read, and to write

The latest issue of the Center for Mennonite Writing’s online journal is up: this one devoted to “new fiction.” Editor Ervin Beck says the issue is intended “to encourage the writing of fiction in the Mennonite community.” Periodicals favour poetry, he notes. “Fiction requires more space from the publisher and more patience and commitment from the readers.”

For your patience and commitment then, seven new stories or novel excerpts, including the story “Chopsticks” by yours truly, in which the first person narrator weaves a tale of piano lessons, a train ride, her brother, and her father.

One of the goals I set myself several years ago was to put together a collection of short stories, containing some previously published stories as well as new work. I have eight published pieces from which I might draw, and about half that many others more or less completed or in progress. The publication of such a collection is by no means a given, of course; it may take as many years to find a publisher, especially in these uncertain times, as to write the stories themselves!

But in the meanwhile, I need to get back on track with the project itself. I lost momentum when I returned to the MB Herald last year as interim editor, and have had trouble getting it back, though my desire to continue remains strong. There’s just something about this kind of writing — perhaps because it’s a relatively new genre for me — that provokes all manner of self-doubt, fear, and procrastination. Each time I sit down to it, it’s like jumping into water over my head and knowing I still can’t swim. What’s the right technique again, for legs and arms, for breathing? Help!

Well, enough confession. Flannery O’Connor said, “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.” So I’ve gone and declared myself here, and I’ve got the prod of my writers’ group’s monthly meeting on Monday, for which I must have something ready to read. The file of the story-in-progress is open. I’m jumping in. Again.