Looking at myself…

On Monday, I recalled myself as a child in reference to the limited schooling available to the Mennonite children of Bolivia, such as the girl, left, in Lisa Wiltse’s photo essay in The Walrus. It was a way of explaining what motivates my concerns for her and her siblings and peers: my gratitude for the privileges I’ve had to be educated, and my remembered longings to learn. Today I’ll be even bolder — on the personal side of things — for there’s a photo of myself I love, and at a poetry workshop about a decade ago we were to write something based on a photo, and so I wrote about that one. I make no claims for the poetry, but it does try to get at what I was saying on Monday. (Photo and poem follow below.)

Some may see it as a failure of the imagination if I feel pity for those Mennonite children. I’m forgetting, they may say, how much joy can be wrested out of life in spite of limitations and constraints, and surely limitations and constraints have been the lot of women and children, and men too of course, throughout time. Life is but a vale of sorrow, etc. etc. True enough. Still, I insist on linking my life to theirs and wishing more for them, and I insist on pity too. I think it could be allowed that this is not a failure but an act of imagination. As writer Amy Tan has said, “Imagination is the closest thing to feeling compassion.”

Looking at myself at nearly-eight

I am set down to smile
in a classroom, a place as lovely,
as familiar, as comforting,
as any green arbor Nature might arrange —
a table, a blackboard, a book
open to every possible green thing
I will discover —

The face of the girl is radiant.
I want to touch her,
frame my hands about these cheeks
to remember the young skin of
curiosity and confidence,
meet her eager blue-green eyes of

Bolivia Mennonites in “The Walrus,” and more

A couple of people I know were contacted by The Walrus about a piece the magazine was doing on Mennonites in Bolivia. I had no idea what angle it would take, but hoped it would provide some current information on the situation that hit the headlines more than a year ago: the rape of many women in the Manitoba colony and the arrest of a group of men alleged to have perpetrated these rapes. I assumed the piece would bring professional journalistic standards to bear, and perhaps arouse concern and even indignation on a number of aspects of this situation, from the trauma of the women to the lack of trial proceedings for the men.

A comment to an earlier post alerted me that said Walrus was now out. Her assessment of the piece, a photo essay by Lisa Wiltse? “Hmm, there’s got to be more to the story than this!” Now that I’ve also had a chance to see the issue, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only four paragraphs of text. The photographs are wonderfully done, yes, capturing the lives of the children especially, their energy, shyness, and beauty. There’s a lovely family spirit, a kind of bucolic charm, in Wiltse’s photos that’s attractive, even a rebuke to our consumerist society. The text is fine as far as it goes, as well, which isn’t far enough, giving the summary facts of Mennonites, the Manitoba colony, the rapes, the limitations for women and children. Much is hidden behind a few words:  the men “wary,” the women “reluctant,” and “a tension pervaded the colony.”

Yet, the article continues, life goes on, as it has “for centuries.” That’s the tragedy of the tale, perhaps. Life goes on, as it has.

Yes. But. I see that lovely blond girl with her slate, head framed by a blackboard of numbers, and I remember myself at that age and my longing to learn, to discover, to go on reading and discovering day after day after day…. and knowing I could. This girl’s brothers will stop school after seven years and she’ll have to stop even earlier. It’s enough to break one’s heart.

Add to that attitudes about sex, and the role and purpose of women, which may take her to a life of drudgery and sexual activity that feels demeaning rather than freely participated in and joyous. That’s heartbreaking too. Continue reading