Saturday, December 20, 2014

Give me a new song to sing

Mary Travers 1937 - 2009
Agnes and I just watched a retrospective of the music of Peter, Paul and Mary with a guest appearance by Pete Seeger; I ended up teary-eyed and we both agreed that somehow in the last years, we've lost something of . . . of whatever it was that energized us when we hummed along with Where Have all the Flowers Gone,  or sang exuberantly Because all Men are Brothers:

Let every voice be thunder, let every heart beat strong
Until all tyrants perish our work shall not be done
Let not our memories fail us the lost year shall be found
Let slavery's chains be broken the whole wide world around.

I suppose one could rationalize the choice of whatever road we branched off onto in any number of ways, possibly invoking post-modernism or post-Christian influences as causative. In any case, the short trip into the heady idealism of the 60s and 70s tonight left a bitter-sweet, nostalgic taste behind.

                Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Judy Collins were some of the banner carriers for peace and justice at a time when the civil rights movement was growing, the Vietnam War was raging—too soon after the Korean War—and America was being forced to rethink itself. The songs pointed outward, a sharp contrast to the "all about me" drivel that characterizes so much pop and country music of the current age. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, click here for Justin Bieber's If I was your Boyfriend video.)

                I went to YouTube to look for some nostalgia, and mourned the 2009 death through leukemia of Mary Travers by playing a black and white video of a 1963 rendering of Pete Seeger's If I had a Hammer. Take a step back to this wonderful song so soulfully sung by clicking here.

                Oh, I know. Every generation since (and including, probably) Adam and Eve has assumed that the next generation is enthusiastically pumping itself toward hell on a handcart. That's not me, but sometimes I long for the talented poets and songwriters of this time to come out of their shells and give us some robust songs of protest. Something we all—young and old—can beat time to. Something that helps us express our anxieties in unison, build our hopes that justice and peace can bless our world . . . even so. Something tuneful, harmonious and honest.

                Heaven knows, we didn't put paid to war, injustice and poverty in our day, but maybe we kept it at bay for a time. I think every generation of artists has this obligation to tend to.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Jawings from Moose Jaw

Someone posted a link to a video of an Arizona pastor referring to Levitical law to make a point that AIDS could be cured by Christmas if we were to obey the Old Testament injunction that says homoerotic acts should carry the death penalty. Putting aside for the moment the misconceptions about HIV's preferences, such ghastly pronouncements falling on hundreds of ears are bound to find some receptive, fertile ground in which to grow and flourish.

I'm waiting to see if the pastor in question will be charged with spreading hate. If he is, a cadre of followers will no doubt emerge to cry "freedom of speech, freedom of religion!" and make out that the pastor is the victim here; it happens frequently.

This may sound alarmist, but I sense that the number of people being drawn into that comfort zone characterized by legalistic, arbitrary, deductive, black/white thinking is growing. Fortunately, it's not a majority in North America yet, but because of the quieter, more tolerant voices of liberalism, conservative bombast is ending up punching far above its weight class. In Canada, the relatively-solid 38% have ruled the roost for the past eight years, producing reams of ideologically-driven legislation, much of it so bad that the supreme court has had to step in to prevent the pernicious disregard of the constitution.

My experiences as a classroom teacher have informed my conviction that there is real harm awaiting us if liberalism can't find a way to unite against creeping, retrograde thinking. I've observed that among teachers you're always bound to find many who teach kids and others who teach curriculum. For the latter, the curriculum is the law book to be applied with equal vigour and the same expectations to every kid in class; good teachers, meanwhile, measure success by the growth in skills, self-confidence and socialization of the individual child, whether or not the curriculum has been mastered as prescribed. Too-simply put, probably, curriculum teachers drive the less-endowed into deviance, the kid-teachers produce well-adjusted citizens who retain with dignity the attributes with which they were born.

Even so, the conservative mind clings to the sanctity of the curriculum, demands standardized testing, imposes on teachers restrictive, deductively-arrived-at parameters that seem to be logical but waste the skills and understandings gained in professional training. This is the conservative mind at work. For the Arizona pastor, the Bible is the curriculum and under its apparent dictates, every student must be taught the same as every other one.

My point today is finally that unless we mean to be governed by Harperism into the foreseeable or distant future, liberals will need to eat some crow and give the population a viable progressive, social democratic choice. In Canada today, I want to see the Liberal and NDP unite to form the Liberal Democratic Party of Canada (LDPC) and the Green Party to take over as the "third party of conscience."

The clock is ticking, people. Great harms of all kinds are very real possibilities. The times require you and me to act.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Frostiana for a Sunday morning

Mending Wall - Robert Frost
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

And spills the upper boulders in the sun . . ."

I was asked to read Mending Wall by Robert Frost to an adult Bible class Sunday  morning, so I gave it another look before I went out to snowblower the driveway. (snowblower: v. - poetic license #301HER) As so often happens when I revisit Frost--or Eliot, or W. Jansen or V.C.Friesen, for that matter--I can't put the book down before reading just one more.

Some talk about this phenomenon when reading the Bible.

Except that they lack endorsement by ancient canonical councils, our poets could be called prophets. But then, ". . . A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country." (Mark 6:4) Take Frost's Mending Wall, an eloquent, poignant, unpreachifying (See poetic license authorization above) urging us to consider carefully the reasons for--and the consequences of--wall and fence-building, whether physical OR virtual.

Nature shakes our stone walls apart; something in our hearts longs for walls and fences to come down.

Frost's farmer friend insists that "good fences make good neighbours." We would do well as communities--whether they be secular or spiritual, neighbourly or scattered--to study Frost's great poem together and consider our fence-building obsessions, their reasons and their consequences.

" . . . It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need a wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard."

So if your appetite for more prophetic Frostian verse has been whetted, let me recommend Revelation. I give you a link: Frost and his poetry are eminently googleable. (Ibid).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Windshield wipers on horses

Blackstrap prairie . . . and no pipelines in sight.
I was more or less indifferent about the Keystone Pipeline. It wouldn't be crossing my yard, I didn't live down river from the oil sands and I'm not a trained environmentalist. I'm just an ordinary guy who coughs and sneezes when the air is foul and a worrier about the future of mankind if we don't start seriously switching to non-carbon energy sources soon. Those were the thoughts that idled through my brain after listening to the endless quarrels.

But I've come to oppose it for a simple, more personal reason.

They say getting oil safely to the Gulf of Mexico makes the pipeline essential. I guess I can accept that; Lac Megantic illustrated for us the very real hazards in moving petroleum products by rail. The argument, though, "begs the question:" it's a fallacy in logic. To be shown to be a reasonable argument, the need to move oil to the Gulf at all must first be established. It hasn't. At least not in my presence. The range of options as regards oil sands crude is broad, the transportation to the Gulf for processing and distribution being but one possibility.

The errors of logic don't stop there; that the pipeline is vital to the Canadian economy assumes that alternative investments wouldn't deliver similar results. I can't recall where I read it, but the thrust was of the near certainty that research, development and implementation in the renewable energy sector will be the wave of prosperity in the near future, and that the demand for fossil fuels will diminish in inverse proportion. If this is a sound prediction, then Keystone may have begun its slide into obsolescence about the time it's finished.

There are lots of arguments out there opposing Keystone; the environmentalists and scientists would come up with a whole catalog at the drop of a hat, I expect. I'm language-and-logic obsessed, I guess, and so my exception to Keystone Pipeline lies in that area. The project is extremely poorly supported in the reason and logic areas. The premises on which the arguments for the absolute need of a pipeline rest are shaky at best, false at worst.

And for any proponents of the project who don't know the difference between a non sequitur and a hand saw or who don't recognize when an argument "begs the question," I offer a simple explanation:
Suppose a couple builds a house and while shopping for plumbing stuff, the man's eyes fall on a lawn fertilizer sale so he buys a big bag of it. When the wife asks, "Why all the fertilizer?" the man says, "Well it's logical. We'll need it for our lawn! And it was on sale!" "Really?" says the wife. "We haven't even explored properly whether or not a lawn is what we ought to have!"

The man's logic is impeccable--except for the fact that it "begs a question" that renders it as stupid as windshield wipers on a horse.

It's Keystone Pipeline logic.

And that's why I oppose it.

Let's put the wife in the allegory in charge; our current government is far too busy shopping for more and more fertilizer!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

To smudge or not to smudge

Do we have "sacred places?"
Have you ever smudged, and if you did, was your heart in it? No doubt you've already heard about the canceled MCC event in Winnipeg. Seems the Pentecostal Church whose space they had rented got wind of the Aboriginal performers' intention to "smudge" before their appearance and decided this would be inappropriate in a Christian church. It's been all over the news so you probably already know about the competing opinions on this development. 

Coincidentally, it fell to my lot on the last two Sundays to lead a couple of adult classes in discussions of Ezekiel's temple visions and I did some reading on the nature of burnt offerings as religious ceremonies, particularly in Judeo-Christian history. A rabbi writes that the smoke from the sacrificial altar is/was an aroma pleasing to God, as well as having cleansing attributes, of course.

I've visited cathedrals all over Europe and must say that wafting candle smoke and the exotic aroma of burning incense has become a powerful, soothing balm to me. But then, the candles and the aroma of burning pine needles affected me similarly during childhood Christmases, as did the burning of dry leaves and garden debris in the fall.

More recently, I have found the experience of smudging with the smoke of burning sweet grass soothing,  somehow elevating. I was told on a recent visit to an exhibit at Wanuskewin Heritage Park that smudging before entering the exhibitcommemorating murdered and missing Aboriginal womenwas mandatory. Our guide spoke of cleansing, of reconnecting with our creator through the medicinal elements of creation: sweetgrass, sage, cedar and tobacco. Her description wasn't that far removed from the rabbi's discussion of the benefits experienced in ancient offerings and sacrifices.

But my church has no ceremonies involving incense, sacrificial firing, first-fruits offerings or smudging. For me, then, it's hard to separate the experience of such ceremonies from the claims of aromatherapy. But being inclined to think liberally about matters, I'm happy to accept that when one person says he feels forgiven, cleansed by a ceremony and I say I feel refreshed and relaxed, we may be saying the same thing.

I don't think I'd ever warm to the possibility of burnt offering as a spiritual exercise, but invite me to a smudging, offer me a candle to light for my lost daughter and I'll thank you.

As to the Pentecostal church that was made uncomfortable by smudging on their premises, I understand. I don't expect their sensibilities would be up to admitting a kinship to  Native spirituality and the thought of its exercise on their "sacred" territory was bound to elicit discomfort. My elders were angry when we children would wander into the pulpit area of the church. Despite our Anabaptist theology's downplaying of the sanctity of places, many of us remain sensitive to the possibility of defilement.  

Dust-ups like this one are commonplace; always have been. Some of us adapt quickly to change, are willing to explore new ways of seeing things; others are threatened by it. Where religious traditions and beliefs are concerned, those tensions are particularly acute.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Childhood thought for the day.

The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
              Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Where poppies blow . . .

Suppose you were marching in a military parade dressed in a crisp, khaki uniform, shoes shined to perfection, embedded in a troop of soldiers looking and stepping exactly as you do. (North Koreans are very good at this.) Would you not feel just a tad odd? Wouldn't it all seem a bit kindergarten? Would you not feel a bit like an interchangeable machine part?

     I know I would.

     There's plenty of that military "peacocking" going on just now, what with our CF18s in Kuwait, two soldiers killed in civilian territory, the anniversary of WWI and today, poppies everywhere. And militaristically-motivated thinking is on the rise in Canada, in part because our politicians are crassly willing to hitch their electoral hopes to whatever mood is in public favour at the moment.

     I'm not wearing a poppy this year. I've been to the fields where poppies blow; I've counted crosses row on row, I've marveled at these delicate red blossoms growing, waving valiantly against the gold of European wheat fields. They don't represent the dubious valour of desperate soldiers trying to survive greedy politicians' wars in the muddy, cold trenches of Belgium to me. They suggest much more closely the wispy, timid fight for survival of an idea, an idea about a better world, a world in which peace is won through gentler campaigns. A world schooled by the sure knowledge that what is won through brutality destroys both victor and vanquished.

     Wild poppies are very fragile.

     The first priority of military endeavour is to dehumanize one's own men, to uniform them, accustom them to marching lockstep, convince them that obedience is better than reason. The second need is to dehumanize the other, characterize enemy soldiers as soulless vermin to be eradicated. How else could your neighbour or mine bring himself to set rifle sights on another man and pull the trigger?

     No. The poppy has become for me a reminder of our folly, not our honour. It's a reminder to me that we humans routinely shit where we eat, befoul the bed where our children will need to sleep.

     I won't wear a poppy today. Unless, perhaps, I should find one that is black.

     I willingly honour, though, the heartbreak and mourning of those who have lost loved ones in war, whose fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, sons or daughters were brutally taken away in whatever war fate placed them.

     May God comfort you.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

From what trauma do I suffer, I wonder

A Mennonite Path through Cree Territory
We were about 20 of us gathered in the Mennonite Central Committee Africa Room. We were focused on inter-generational trauma, specifically as it relates to Mennonite history and to Indigenous Canadians' stories. In short, many of us who were born into Mennonite faith and culture have a history that includes martyrdom in the 16th and 17th centuries and—for some of us—the brutality of the Stalinist purges. The trauma endured by our Indigenous neighbours through their displacement by settlement and the more recent cultural genocide represented by the residential school system was a reality more immediate to most of us who experienced the Truth and Reconciliation process.

Trauma. We didn't used to use that word. Now we hear regularly about the effects of “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) in returning soldiers of recent wars and neurological research has begun to unravel why it is that we can't simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps after severe trauma, why we don't “just get over it.” 

That trauma echoes down through generations is a possibility included in our discussions, a possibility that drew some skepticism from participants.This is not surprising; having been schooled in the idea that it's our genes that determine the characteristics with which we begin life, it's hard for us to imagine that sorrow or joy, anger or patience, for instance, could attach to biological, genetic structures. The burgeoning study of “epigenetics” hints at the possibility, though, that attributes (including, possibly, the personality changes brought on by trauma) can be passed down biologically outside the mechanisms of genetics. (Hence epigenetics, outside genetics.)

We know that persons abused by parents are more likely to behave harshly with their kids than persons who were raised with love and patience. Where trauma changes behaviour, in other words, changed behaviour is inevitably modeled for next generations.

We've been told by our Indigenous brothers and sisters that the residential school system and the trauma it induced has had inter-generational consequences. An elder said to me once that the cultural folkways that governed child-rearing were destroyed by the simple fact that children were taken away from home at a young age. Denied the privilege of raising children for long stretches and over generations fundamentally wiped out the ability to parent with conviction and integrity. It's not hard to see, if his assessment is correct, how this phenomenon coupled with the trauma of separation could have monumental, devastating cultural consequences.

But as Harley Eagle said to us in the sessions (if not in these exact words), if we want to be contributors to reconciliation with our Indigenous neighbours, we must begin by healing ourselves. So I'm left wondering: how much of my outlook and behaviour was given its direction in the life of my ancestors? Was my father moody and given to occasional fits of anger because his grandfather was frustrated with his lot on a poor farm in Novovitebsk? Would I be more patient if my grandparents hadn't gone through the trauma of relocation to a cold, bare, dry prairie? From what inherited malignancies do you and I need healing? Or is it all balderdash?

What is clear is that the land on which I live—Treaty 6 territory—was once Cree life space, likely assumed by them to be an eternal land legacy. In Treaty 6, the Cree agreed with the Canadian government to share the space and the said Canadian government offered a piece of it to my ancestors, a piece for which we've been grateful ever since—ironically to the Canadian government, not to the Cree. There's a way of our behaving as settlers that emanates from historical roots, that includes the possibilities of civilization vs heathendom, of manifest destiny, of obedience to authority as a way to survive, of emotional and cultural insularity as bulwarks against whatever threats may come, of stubborn silence as a virtue: die Stille im Lande.

There's much in us Mennonites that needs healing. The road to a future of equality and fraternity with out neighbours will be paved by an acknowledgement that it is us, not they, with whose healing we ought logically concern ourselves first.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

Aren't dandelions amazing?!?
Can you be thankful without directing your gratitude toward something or someone? I wonder this Thanksgiving Sunday about feeling thankful, about expressing grateful feelings without knowing exactly what or whom I ought to be thankful to, a euphoria without knowledge of its source. I have moments—sometimes days—like that.
      Long ago now, I had an epiphany forced upon me by circumstance, the revelation being that to thank God, or Allah, or the Buddha specifically for my abundant food, for instance, could hardly be consistent without its corollary, namely that the deity that chose to grant me such good fortune also chose to let—or cause—my neighbour to go hungry. The conundrum caused too much stress to ancient theologians, I concluded, and so a second god, an evil one, was invented so that a different deity could be blamed for the ubiquity of evils and failures.
       But whether the ancients were right or wrong in their world view regarding good and evil, they did prepare for us some remarkable insights. I'm intrigued by their thoughts on Sabbath, for instance, a deliberate check on our tendency to overdo practically every project that engages us: too much focus on ourselves, too much property and stuff, obsessive preoccupations with self-indulgences. The Sabbath is a stop sign that urges us to take stock of our lives and reset if necessary.
      Perhaps Thanksgiving is a Sabbath of sorts, an acknowledgement that those things that keep us well-fed, safe and content have been won with great effort by those who went before us and by those that sweat and strain to build, to fix, to plant, to harvest so that we might be warm, safe and satisfied. My inclination this thanksgiving is to show the sincerest gratitude to my family, to my neighbours, to farmer friends, even to the man who always has a store of gasoline for me so I can drive thither and yon and the corner grocer for blessing me with friendship, hard work, skills.
      And, of course, I will in a faltering, uncertain way give thanks for the miracle of this planet with its beauty, its sustaining resources, its air, water, soil and oxygen that deserve my gratitude with every breath I draw, with every apple I eat, with every waking morning even though my pleasure in all of it is brief and uncertain.
      For certain, I did not make this happen.
      My thoughts of thanksgiving often stray to the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins, whose verse sometimes baffled my English students completely, but whose sounds and images captivated the more one immersed oneself in them, studied them.
      Happy thanksgiving.

Pied Beauty
Gerard Manly Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal, chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How far can you count?

How come we seem able only to count to 2?

Pope Frances is visiting Albania whereCBC News tells ushalf the population is Muslim, the other half Christian. Two colours. Black and white. No grays.

Comments posted on North American websites hurl accusations back and forth; the labelsyou lefties or you redneckssuggest a world with only 2 political sides. (Some imply that in Canada, the Greens, the NDP and the Liberals are all "lefties," as opposed to the Harperites who are "that blessed ONE in a world of only 2," and vice versa, of course.)

I'm pretty sure ISIL, or ISIS, sees the world as 2: us and the infidel.

I remarked on this at the dinner table the other day, ill-advisedly declaring in defense of 2 that the entire population was either male or female, and was brought up short in support of all those many who are born with gender characteristics that are ambiguous, even scary to those who tenaciously cling to the fiction of a black and white world, a world of 2.

I grew up in the Mennonite Church in a predominantly Christian community. There we learned that "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Luke 11:23, also found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark)." We also learned that, "Jesus answered (Thomas), 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me' (John 14:6, not recorded in the other gospels)." There's really no easy way to interpret these passages other than as a description of a world of 2those with me and those against me.

I was diligently taught not to count past 2 in these matters.

Honourable Justice Murray Sinclairspeaking on the subject of Christian Church/Aboriginal reconciliationsaid that  "Christians and their churches must demonstrate respect for Aboriginal spirituality . . . they must no longer insist that Christianity is the only way for all people."  (Esther Epp-Tiessen in INTOTEMAK, Summer 2014, Vol 43, No 2)

If Justice Sinclair is right, then the kingdom of heaven is not populated by a monochromatic white but by rainbows of colour, not 1 as against 2, but 3, 4, 5 . . . ∞ together, a myriad of persons known not by the greenness of their leaves but by the flavour and nutrition in their fruit. (See Matthew 7: 16 - 20)

I've never been to Albania, but I'm guessing there aren't only Muslims and Christians there, and among those two groups, that there are liberal thinkers and conservative thinkers and any numbers of gradations between, plus Buddhists, Unitarians, agnostics and atheists, etc. I’m also guessing that good fruit doesn’t only grow on tree 1 or tree 2.

(What a bit of irony70+ and still learning to count!)

We do our politics, our religion, our social interactions, our very families great wrong if we can't bring ourselves to count past 2.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Human Rights, Political Rights

Browsing in the Amnesty International Annual Review for 2013 jogged my memory of a recently-heard declaration (I know not from whence it came) to whit: “There are no human rights, only political rights.” I concede that we use the phrase glibly, as if invoking a human right makes reference to something that is immutable, eternal and clearly understandable to anyone who is human.
      Political rights speaks of the privileges granted to citizens by a state, as in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are legally enforceable, as in the guaranteed right to participate in elections in Canada.
      Human rights implies that beyond the political rights and freedoms written into the laws of states (or not), there exists an overarching charter relevant to every human being born on earth, whether Canadian, Sri Lankan, Colombian or Irish. If such a universal charter exists, then a state—for instance—that denies its citizens the right to participate in their governance is in violation of that charter. 
     In contrast to political rights, history has shown us that human rights are, by and large, unenforceable—except through indirect and usually ineffective means like shunning, shaming, pleading, bargaining, threatening, etc. It's one thing for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to declare that “Everyone has the right to education,” but the UN hasn't the means to prevent Boko Haram from bombing schools in Nigeria.
      Is an unenforceable right a right after all?
      The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a collectively-arrived-at attempt to enunciate an overarching charter, a visualization of what the dignified, contented life consists of for any person born on this earth. I am one of the lucky few; born in Canada, I experience political rights pretty well consistent with the UN Declaration. Had I been born an aboriginal Canadian or a female in rural Nigeria, not so much.
      Whether yours and my views on human rights tend more toward justice issues, democracy, humanitarian aid or possibly even the saving of souls in preparation for a next life, I'm sure we generally agree that the privileged and the powerful of this world owe the down-trodden a hand up. My choice has been, and continues to be, support for Amnesty International in their tireless work in support of persons suffering human rights abuses. Because Amnesty is non-sectarian and focused, it can do what sectarian organizations have found difficult, namely the supporting and/or rescuing of individuals whom neither political nor human rights charters and declarations have been able to protect.
      A friend once told me that he didn't like the language of rights because it smacks of demands for me, me, me without acknowledgement of related responsibilities to others. Certainly, we hear plenty of “I demand my rights” talk these days, but the squealing of privileged people selfishly suing for rights shouldn't deter us from recognizing that the means to dignified, contented life is being routinely stolen from the majority of our fellow humans by tyrannies, corporate exploitation, discrimination, crime, injustice and/or sheer neglect.
      Are there such things as basic, incontrovertible human rights? Among us privileged, it comes down to the question of whether or not we deserve the benefits we enjoy while others don't, both cases owing primarily to serendipitous accidents of birth.
      To begin lending your support to the fight for human rights world wide, please click here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Please pass the potatoes . . .

Just listened to a 20 minute CBC podcast of the program “The 180,” with Jim Brown. He was interviewing Al Mussel; the descriptor for the interview reads: “Want to Save the Planet? Skip the farmer's market.” The argument wasn't hard to follow, if somewhat hard to swallow: the world population requires efficient, massive food production which local, intensive farming can't deliver. Hence, if we want to feed the world, relying on local, intensive production will require putting more land into agricultural use which, in turn, will devastate wet lands, forests, etc.
      Like many, we (my wife and I) have fallen in love with the local food markets. Recently, we went out to a nephew's small market garden and dug our own potatoes, beets, carrots and picked a bushel of tomatoes. A month ago, we joined a group of friends in butchering 113 free range chickens in exchange for our winter's supply. Our experience is that local production allows us to judge the quality of the product, thereby enabling healthier, tastier eating. (The emphasis, I think, should be on “tastier”: eat a tomato off the vine or a chicken off the grass and store produce begins to taste like cardboard.)
      But then, we North Americans have choices in this matter; much of the world doesn't.
      Obviously, the discussion about food consumption and production can't be just one dialogue. An individual household's relation to the sources of its food is not the same subject as the feeding of the world's population. Unless we have small farms of our own and energy generated off-grid, foodstuffs have to find their way to our kitchens through some means outside of our direct control. That reality alone propels us beyond the mere consideration of our personal diet choices. On a world scale, the fact that some regions can produce so much foodstuff that they're always in surplus and in search of markets doesn't present an obvious solution to world hunger. If the goal is nutritious, uncompromised, balanced diets for everyone, I have no problem reaching its achievement for my household; when I'm asked to contribute to reaching that goal for everyone in the global village, I don't know what more I can do than support emergency aid through MCC or another similar organization.
      Logically, everyone in the world should be near the source of his food. An imperative corollary to this would obviously be the curtailing of population growth to match the productivity potential of the general area, an extension of the simple admonition that a couple should never allow themselves 6 kids if they only have means to feed 2. A second corollary—to my mind—would be the internationalization of the world's food supply; when food is raised, bought/sold and consumed like widgets on the world market, it's difficult to see how its production and distribution can ever be made to serve the goal of good diets for all persons.
      A third prerequisite would, of course, have to do with ending all wars for all time. I'll get right on that as soon as I'm done this.
      Hopeless as it may seem, let's not give up. Thumb your nose at Al Mussel and shop at your farmers' market, dig up a plot in your backyard and grow your own tomatoes, send buckets of money to aid organizations, buy fair-trade coffee at Ten Thousand Villages, write your MP a letter whenever you see government skimping on their aid budget, shop at Mom and Pop rather than at corporate chains, bicycle more and drive less, and recycle, reuse and reduce.
     (I took a break right here to brush potatoes and peel carrots—garden fresh—for dinner. How anyone can sit down to new vegetables without thanking creation and gardeners first is beyond me. Segne Vater diese Speise, uns zur Kraft und dir zum Preise. Amen)

Monday, September 01, 2014

Milton's Dress

Milton's dress

So here’s a brush with history and a reason to ponder the nature of the historic. In museum jargon, we call the story behind an artifact its provenance. On my desk at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Rosthern lies a small child’s dress, once white, now somewhat yellowed. The provenance card reads: “BABY DRESS – worn by Milton Siemens in 1916. He drowned on his 21st birthday. Accession #80-475.” (Small children wore dresses whether male or female in those days; it probably made diaper-care easier.)

       I guess I’ve always known the story of Milton Siemens; his brother and sister still attend my church. His tragic death was somewhat of a legend in my growing-up years and probably coloured my parents’ attitude toward youth excursions to water.

      The dress is very light—gauzy, almost. I held it in my hands for a while imagining Milton’s mother slipping it over his head on a Sunday morning in 1917 or so, preparing to go to church, possibly imagining the delighted chucks under the chin for her handsome little man. And I visualized the heartbreak 20 years later when she got the tragic news that her son had suddenly been torn from her.

     Provenance. I’m surrounded by stories.

      It’s possible that among the threads of this tiny garment, Milton Siemens’ DNA could still be found with modern technology—but I doubt it.

Also on my desk is a fine-china teacup. The manufacturer’s label is in Russian; the provenance note reads: “CUP from Russia – 1923. Helen Dyck family.” There are photographs on these premises of Mennonite migrants from Russia arriving in Rosthern in 1923. Somewhere in their luggage is this cup that was too delightful to be left behind. 
There’s a can of ground, roasted wheat on my desk as well; if I put a teaspoon of it in this cup and poured boiling water over it and drank it, how close could I come to the sensation of a mid morning pripz break in 1920 somewhere along the Dniepr River?

I’ve entered dozens of photographs into our new databases, faded black and whites of places in someone’s memory. This morning a friend showed me numerous photographs of his family history, especially of Osterwick, the village in Russian Ukraine through which his roots can be traced. Long overrun by progress, that place still must exist, some of the buildings erected by the Mennonites who once lived there must still be in use, I would guess. So is it still the same place?

For many people, places invoke both nostalgia and story like nothing else can. A year ago, my brother retired from the farm on which I grew up and the “Epp Place” finally went into the hands of strangers. A story ends—not without a few pangs of regret—and another begins. ‘Twas ever thus.

So, is it true as the philosophers say, “you can’t go home again?” Is there anything of us in the artifacts and places we leave behind? Is something lost if places and objects of the past are forgotten, their records abandoned?

Obviously, my view is that our lives are about more than just today or I wouldn’t be here in the Mennonite Heritage Museum on a stat holiday entering data for—and placing carefully into temporary storage—a small boy’s dress and a chipped Russian teacup.

Some would say there are landfills for that.