Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen

“Well, he doesn’t really believe in cell phones,” she apologized. For my father, belief in cell phones was somehow optional. It was a deeply subjective matter, like reincarnation. Inviting cell phones into your heart like Jesus was clearly something he was unprepared to do.


When she was 43, Rhoda Janzen’s husband of more than 15 years left her for a guy named Bob that he met on (as she frequently reminds us). A week later she was nearly killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. Those two events led to an extended stay with her parents while she took a sabbatical. A stay with her Mennonite parents in her Mennonite community that she had largely left behind to become a not-quite atheist professor in the secular world. While with them, she reflected on her youth, her family, her Mennonite heritage, her marriage to Nick, and her current state of affairs. What emerged was this memoir. It is not so much a story as an intertwining of countless little stories and meditations as Janzen took stock of her life. All of them are told with an intelligent, funny, and deeply personal voice.

My one bone to pick with Janzen’s writing stems from that deeply personal voice, as she often generalizes her particular experiences as representative of the homogeneous label “Mennonite.” As a fellow “strayed” Mennonite I can relate to much of what she says, but she also glosses over many differences that I wouldn’t claim. She is Mennonite Brethren, for instance, who in her case are from Fresno by way of Canada by way of a long stay in Ukranian Russia, whereas my clan from the old Mennonite Church are Kansan by way of Indiana by way of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. We all originally hailed from the German and Dutch-speaking parts of Central Europe, but I don’t have any stories about taking Borscht to school for lunch, as an example, and she tells it as though we all do. She also takes some creative license to exaggerate for the sake of humor and better anecdotes, but that doesn’t bother me the same way as her using her unique experiences with her unique family as a representation of all Mennonites everywhere.

Still, that’s a minor issue. Overall I greatly enjoyed the book and found myself going back and forth between laughing and marking sections I wanted to share as insightful depictions of Mennonite characteristics. As with herself and the members of her family, Janzen’s feelings about being Mennonite are mixed; many of her vignettes and depictions are almost cruelly honest and snarky, yet many others are clearly appreciative and loving. More often than not, both dynamics are at play at the same time. Most importantly, the book is an entertaining reflection on an individual’s identity and sometimes painful experience of life.


I may be the first person to mention my father’s good looks in print. Good looks are considered a superfluous feature in a Mennonite world leader, because Mennonites are all about service. Theoretically, we do not even know what we look like, since a focus on our personal appearance is vainglorious. Our antipathy to vainglory explains the decision of many of us to wear those frumpy skirts and the little doilies on our heads, a decision we must have arrived at only by collectively determining not to notice what we had put on that morning.


In an ironic twist, two of the most conservative Mennonite parents took a sharp stand against monologism. An Americentric worldview, they believed, was incompatible with Christian values on the grounds that God loved all nations equally. My folks insisted that we study and travel abroad.


“Oh, they’ll mellow over time,” said Mom. “When you’re young, faith is often a matter of rules. What you should do and shouldn’t do, that kind of thing. But as you get older, you realize that faith is really a matter of relationship—with God, with the people around you, with the members of your community.”


I have come to believe that virtue isn’t a condition of character. It’s an elected action. It’s a choice we keep making, over and over, hoping that someday we’ll create a habit so strong it will carry us through our bouts of pettiness and meanness.


The sorority as a nurturing institution simply didn’t exist on the Mennonite horizon. Mennonites would have neither approved nor understood any network that promoted social lubricities such as datability, popularity, or unquestioning institutional loyalty. That last quality would have seemed too much like mindless nationalism, and Mennonites, with their pledge to peacemaking, felt uneasy about promising loyalty for the sheer sake of loyalty. While they believed in loving and serving one’s country, they reserved the right to question any institution capable of legislating war.


But the Amish cut away from the Mennonites in 1693 because the rest of us were too liberal. That’s rich, no? A liberal Mennonite is an oxymoron if ever there was one. So many Mennonite beliefs and practices are conservative that folks are perplexed by what they see as a curious dichotomy. One the one hand, the Mennonites resist change with the narrow doxy and their old-fashioned commitment to family values. On the other hand, those same Mennonites have actually identified with some leftist attitudes over the course of their near-five-hundred-year history. Because they are pro-peace, they are antiwar. Because they are nonviolent, they oppose the death penalty. Because they are anticonsumer, they promote a simple lifestyle that advocates for the environment. It’s a curious collision of opposite forces that even today results in split political filiations among American Mennonite churches. Some are Republican; others lean Democrat. . . .

I’m not really sure what the Amish rebel Jacob Amman found to object to in our humble little religion. We Mennonites were pretty damn holy in the early years. For instance, we were the folks who got burned at the stake, like witches, but without the exciting element of sexual mystery. . . . I can’t speak for the witches, but the Anabaptists were so eager to die for their faith that they made it a point to refuse the optional little bag of gunpowder that was offered as a civil courtesy to most martyrs. . . . They
wanted the long drawn-out pain, on the theory that Jesus Christ’s protracted suffering on the cross served as a shining example for us all.


“Learning bone names is like riding a bike,” she said. “Once you know the bones, you can’t not know them. But saying
ulna isn’t nearly as bad as eating a side dish of chicken intestines.”

This was the kind of semantic leap I had learned to expect. On the subject of chickens in particular, there could be no surprises. This was a woman who had once departed for Hawaii with a frozen fryer in her suitcase, on the theory that the chicken would be thawed by the time her flight landed in Honolulu. If your mother takes frozen uncooked chicken in her suitcase to Hawaii, all bets are off. You just go with the flow. “I suppose that eating a side dish of intestines is preferable to eating them as an entrée,” I said cordially, starting on an onion.

“When my friend Chue Lee invted me to her family’s Hmong banquet, they served a little side dish of chicken intestines beside every plate. I went over early to help them butcher. Did you know that the Hmong use everything—the feet, the head, the beak, the intestines, everything? They carefully rinse out the intestines to get the fecal matter out—“

I made a noise of protest.

“Sorry. But you wouldn’t want to eat chicken intestines that contained feces!”

“We’re moving in the wrong direction here,” I said, peeling a Granny Smith for my soup.

“The Hmong hide the texture and the taste by adding a bunch of hot chile-pepper spices.”

“Did Dad eat his portion of chicken intestines?”

She guffawed. “No. Him? No! I ate his.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you
liked the spicy rinsed intestines?”

“No, but I didn’t want Chue Lee to think we weren’t enjoying them.”

“Would you rather rinse the intestines or eat them?”

She considered. “Rinse them. Although when I was rinsing them, the smell reminded me of our old chicken coop.”


At 4/28/2010 3:51 PM, Blogger Hadrian said...

Oh, you Mennonites, all the same.


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