Monday, February 06, 2012

Lives on Paper

A common gift for children years ago was a diary, a little book with a hard cover and a tiny lock and key that signaled to the whole world that the contents were secret. Most often, the gift was appreciated—for a few days—after which it lay unused in a drawer. The discipline of a keeping a daily diary is, I suspect, a gift that few have ever possessed.
            I spent a few hours in the Archives on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University last week. In particular, I was looking for the original diaries of Jacob D. Epp and Jacob Klaassen, both of which I had been reading recently. The former was my great great grandfather's, written between 1851 and 1885 in Ukrainian Russia; the latter was by a minister in my home church (Eigenheim, near Rosthern, Saskatchewan) roughly between 1920 and 1940. Both were written in handwritten Gothic German. Both have been transcribed into Latin cursive and then translated into English: laborious and time-consuming tasks.
            It’s evident that there existed a strong motivation to record the flow of daily events in these two men. It’s also evident that in the case of both diaries, a common style prevails; they are at the same time diary and journal. Diaries in that they include careful recordings of weather, farm work, seeding and harvests, illness and death, etc.; journals in that emotional, intellectual and spiritual responses to events are included. In the latter vein, they also served as confessionals: both Epp and Klaassen speak of their failures and weaknesses, ask God for forgiveness and pledge to do their best to be faithful servants. Both men see themselves as inadequate for the tasks God sets before them. Many entries end in a prayer for strength as well as for a blessing on families and church communities.
            In my family, the need to keep a diary or journal appears to have disappeared after emigration to Canada in 1893; there are, however diary scraps around from the 1900 – 1945 period in many families and some of these have also been translated and made available, mostly to family members. I journaled and published in limited quantity our MCC years in Europe (1986-89) but have never been able to settle down to that discipline since.
            It’s a shame, really. History ought to be more than the assessments of political affairs by historians. The diary/journal is a way of preserving the temper of the times, particularly as experienced by those who live them away from the centres of power and influence. Ordinary people in ordinary places living ordinary lives, something like that.
            So if I were a diarist like my great grandfather, my entry for today might look like this:
February 3, 2012: -2Another leisurely day in our extended stay in Winnipeg. We spent the morning packing for our return to Rosthern on Sunday. At noon, we picked up my sister Rosella and took her to the MCC bookstore on Henderson Highway where old friends from Thompson—Tony and Marie D. joined us for lunch and a long chat about old times and our respective children. During our stay here, we’ve become aware of how blessed we have been health-wise; many of our friends with whom we “were young” together are dealing with illness. Lord teach us again to be grateful for health and to respect the bodies you’ve given us so that we may be fruitful servants of the kingdom. Amen.
Would this be historically interesting, let alone useful? I wonder. I can't help thinking that the contemplation, the consideration before putting down words on paper must be formative for the individual, while serving down the years as a special vehicle to one's roots that has no real alternative.

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