Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Peaches and Cream Mother’s Day


In honour of Mother's Day, I'll post a chapter from Hutterite Diaries. This is still my most hilarious Mother's Day memory, ever. Actually, I can't remember any communal celebration that garnered so many laughs. 




Behind all your stories is always your mother's story.
Because hers is where yours begins.” – Mitch Albom

It was a lovely Mother’s Day, with the sun pouring down her golden blessings. Sunlight streamed through the windows of the communal kitchen where the people were gathered. As is customary on a Hutterite colony, we were anticipating a beautifully prepared Sunday dinner: noodle soup, roast duck stuffed with Sauerkraut, steamed carrots, salad, potatoes and fruit pizza for dessert.  

            Most adults were already seated, waiting for the few still getting their plates. The children, who had eaten earlier, were in the Essnschuel, children’s dining room, waiting for their cue to enter to sing some special Mother’s Day songs.  Some women, including my mother, were still at the smorg table in the kitchen area, filling their plates. On kitchen duty that week, I was there as well. 

“Is there salad dressing in the fridge?” Mom asked.

“Probably,” I answered without looking up from the mountain of dishes in front of me that I wanted to get cleaned and moved to their place on the shelf. 

She entered the walk-in refrigerator to look for it. Not finding it on the bottom shelves where it usually sat, she spotted a gallon-sized salad dressing container on the top shelf. That must be it, she thought to herself. But on a Hutterite colony, reusing containers is as normal as eating bread. Thus, the salad dressing container was being reused for cream, and its lid had been screwed on haphazardly. 

Reaching up and pulling it toward herself, she received a cool, creamy baptism. Nobody witnessed it. For a few minutes she stood rooted to the spot, as she tried to decide how to deal with this mess. But with no water or dishrags in sight she knew there was just one option left. I wonder if I could slip out without being detected.

           Meanwhile, I was still busy at the sink. My mind meandered back to another Mother’s Day – one I didn’t enjoy so much. I was cooking that time as well. The evening before, I had baked a cherry cake for each mom on the colony. My sister and I were doing this together and we really wanted this to be special cake. While she got the cake pans ready, I measured out the ingredients and mixed them together. Something didn’t seem quite right with the dough; it was rather thick. But we filled the pans anyway, not too bothered. Plus, there wasn’t anything that could be done at that point. After watching it in the oven, though, we knew there was something seriously wrong. The cakes didn’t rise properly and it took longer than usual to bake them. Lifting the pans out of the oven my heart was as heavy as the cake and visions of presenting the colony moms with special cake flew out the window. There was nothing fluffy and light about this cake. It was stiff and heavy; like a water-logged floral sponge.  

It was an extremely long night of tossing and turning and beating myself up, as I was the one who mixed it. I must have done something wrong when I measured the flour, or maybe the baking powder. Too many eggs? Endless possible mistakes swirled around inside my head, like the big mixer in the bakery. No amount of trying to figure out what went wrong changed the fact that on Mother’s Day, of all the days in the year, these dear ladies would get brick cake. 

Mercifully the night ended, but with the dawn came the realization that I’d have to face a bunch of moms who had been anticipating perfectly baked cherry cake. The mood at lunch was stilted, full of unnerving polite or sympathetic smiles, which did nothing for the disappointment and regret knotted in my stomach. “It doesn’t taste so bad, Linda.” One sweet mom offered generously; “Just a bit heavy.” Right, I’m pretty sure not even the birds would eat it, I thought glumly. I just wanted this day to end and forget that I even tried to make it cherry-cake special. 

I was pulled from my not-so-pleasant memories by movement at the walk-in refrigerator. Very cautiously Mom opened the door and peeked out to see who all was still in the kitchen, while hoping that most had gone to the dining room. Grateful that there were only a few women, she ventured out; peering over the top of her cream-splashed glasses, and was met with peals of laughter. In the dining room, meanwhile, everyone was quietly waiting for grace when the laughter erupted. Questioning eyes were drawn towards the kitchen doorway, wanting to know what the joke was.

Photo credit: Judy Walter
           Hurrying towards the sink, with cream cascading down her face, dripping from her black and white kerchief, and streaming down the front of her black church jacket, she resembled a mischievous cat. Struggling to keep from laughing, I managed to wipe most of it off, knowing this image would stay with me for many years. The crowning touch came when I heard, “Peaches and cream!” from a chuckling elderly lady, who added, “Happy Mother’s Day!"

         As for the special cake that never happened, its sting of disappointed lingered for a while, but in its wake I came away a bit wiser. I was reminded that there will most likely be more culinary calamities in my future. I chalked it up as a character-building moment and accepted the fact that everybody makes mistakes. Life tends to dish out disappointments that we have to deal with. They’re the perfect ingredients to help us learn and grow. As Mom would say, “Durch Schodn weat mir klueg, ober nit reich.” (Adversity makes us wise, but not rich.)



Thursday, 9 May 2019

"Community is Mission" and "A Sign of Peace"

I posted this some time ago, but want to re-post it in honour of this humble man, who has now moved to his eternal home. Jean Vanier passed away yesterday, after a battle with thyroid cancer. Here's part of the announcement from his organization's newsletter: 

We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Jean Vanier. Jean passed away peacefully today Tuesday, May 7 at 2:10 a.m. in Paris surrounded by some relatives. In recent days, while remaining very present, he had quickly declined.
We all know Jean’s place in the history of L’Arche and Faith and Light and in the personal stories of a great many of us. Jean’s life has been one of exceptional fruitfulness. First and foremost, we wish to give thanks for that...
...In his last message, a few days ago, Jean said: “I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.”


"The world can only move toward peace if we recognize 
that every human being is my brother or my sister."
- Jean Vanier


A few days ago I received Jean Vanier's autumn newsletter and it struck me how its overriding message was peace. In a world where peace sometimes seems nothing more than an illusion, a wish, a dream, a prayer, a hope. In a world where politicians speak openly about killing helpless babies, rejecting refugees, building walls and say disrespectful things about their fellow human beings. What's even sadder, is that these so-called leaders have a strong following! If we care about love and peace, how can we in good conscience jump on the band wagon of a person who portrays the opposite? Can you imagine a world where church, political, school... leaders would learn from people like Jean Vanier? His lessons are profound, timely, relevant for all, and have eternal value.  


I first heard about Jean Vanier from a friend who had read some of his books. He's Canadian, the author of 30 books, a philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. I bought his book, Becoming Human and was challenged, encouraged and amazed at his humble spirit. This is the kind of book you place on the keeper shelf and pick it up again and again to glean wisdom, and yes, be challenged. It's not very often that I want to meet the author after reading his/her book, but I did this time.

As I learned more about this influential man, who lives the love-message he spreads, I was deeply touched by his selfless and meaningful work: In 1964 Jean founded L'Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 35 countries. These communities are for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Today, Jean lives as a member of the original L'Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. In 2015 he received the Templeton Foundation Prize.

In his Templeton Prize News Conference speech Jean Vanier spoke about love, peace, and community, and how important these elements are for every human being. It became abundantly clear, this award was more about the people he serves than about himself.
 "My dream for this magnificent prize you have given me, and through me to L'Arche and Faith & Light, is for us to create spaces and opportunities for such meetings, meetings which transform hearts. Places where those caught up in the world of success and normality, and those who are in need, but who are also teachers of love and of simplicity, come together. Places where they can share together, eat together, laugh and celebrate together, weep and pray together; where the hearts of those who carry power in our society can be melted and rest; and where all together we may become a sign of peace."

I've lived in a christian community my entire life and something Jean mentioned in his Templeton Award acceptance speech resonated with me and at the same time challenged me: 
"Community is a beautiful thing. Not what some call a closed group, where we know we're the best and cut ourselves off from others, cause we're in our little club. Community is mission; bringing people together, that we can recognize each other as precious... Mission is growing in love... We don't have to be better than anybody. We can be ourselves, each with our gifts, humanity, beauty, fragility...
It's true, all too often our community is "our little club" where we're not very open to including others. We're so caught up with our own tiny world we forgot that we're just a speck in the bigger picture. While Hutterites do reach out beyond the comfortable lives they've carved out for themselves, there's so much more we can do - there's so much need in the world, locally and in far off places. Our material gifts were not meant to be hoarded, but shared with others.  Perhaps one of the secrets to peace and community is putting our own "needs" and petty grievances into perspective by occupying ourselves with reaching out to the less fortunate. There's nothing like volunteering at a homeless shelter to open our eyes to the fact that we have no concept of being hungry and cold, owning nothing, having no home or loving family. Suddenly that new pair of shoes, or that dishwasher we thought we couldn't do without, are not so important.



Jean Vanier, on what it means to be fully human
 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding
Romans 14:17-19

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Hutterite Diaries Spin-Off -- Unexpected Request

It came via the 'Contact Me' form on my blog. A lady by the name of Lacey requested to use one of  the stories featured in Hutterite Diaries. She's working on  a place-based curriculum project, as part of her graduate work:
 This was a final project in partial fulfillment for a Master of Education in Language and Literacy from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I currently reside in Aberdeen, SD. Place-based curriculum is essential to educating children about their communities, local environment, and landscape. The purpose of this place-based curriculum project was to provide learners experiences with local people, places, and things that reside outside the classroom, while addressing South Dakota history and social studies curriculum standards. This project used the online digital Esri Story Maps platform along with written lesson plans to create a third-grade social studies curriculum that highlighted the local geography, history, and culture of the city of Aberdeen, SD, and surrounding area through a place-based educational lens. Through this project, I hope to facilitate students’ place attachment to a specific geographic location (Aberdeen) and support them in developing a sense of belonging and community. 
Naturally I was intrigued by Lacey's project and delighted that she chose to use one of my stories. As part of the different people and places in the Aberdeen area, she wanted to feature Hutterites.  When I pointed out to her that I'm not in the area, not even in the same country, she responded, "I realize that you are not in my region, but I’m finding it difficult to find stories that describe the values and way of Hutterite life." 

The story Lacey chose is, Weathered Wood Lessons, because she decided to focus on Hutterites and frugality. I found it interesting that she picked that story. Yes, we are frugal, to a point, but I feel we don't practice that enough. Seems to me, we were a lot more frugal years ago, than we are today. We've become lax in that area and thus "waste not, want not", is left wanting. Sadly, at times when the older generation points out that fact, it mostly falls on deaf ears.  That being said, there are people among us who diligently practice frugality and are trying to pass it on to the next generation. And Hutterites are notorious for going to garage sales and second hand shops. Some may not see it as such, but this is reusing, recycling, and saving money -- in other words, being frugal. So, perhaps we do have a lesson or two we can share with others.

But back to Lacey's project. She was kind enough to share a link. I thought teachers especially would find this interesting and may be able to use it, or be inspired to create something similar. Click here to view the project. You can navigate the site by using the tabs. What a great idea, that each story comes with a lesson plan! Well Done, Lacey!

It's always rewarding to hear when teachers tell me how they use Hutterite Diaries in their classrooms. (So, feel free to share your ideas.) My sincere thanks to Lacey for introducing my book to schools via her grad project and for allowing me to feature her work on my blog!

I'd like to know what you think of Lacey's project. Can you see yourself doing something like this with your class?




Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Deciphering an 1873 Diary


 “Without words, without writing and without books there would be no history,

there could be no concept of humanity.”

 Hermann Hesse, German-born poet, novelist, and painter




It all started with a challenge at a German Teachers two-day Conference in autumn of 2017. On the back of the program was an excerpt of a letter penned in the late 1800’s. It was written in the old German script known as Sitterling and which has not been used in Germany for many years. The Hutterites were likely the last people to use it. Most of our sermons are in that script and some people have hand-written song books as well. Sitterling is still taught in many Hutterite colony schools today. Even though we don’t use it much in our school anymore, I can still read and write it, which proves to be useful when encountering copies of important historical books. 


At the conference one of the organizers put out the challenge: “Try to decipher the letter at the back of the program. You have to be able to tell me the main purpose of the letter and name some key people involved. There will be a book prize.”


I rose to the challenge, not so much because I wanted the book, (OK, fine. I wanted the book,  too:) but more because I love wrestling with language; and this one proved to be quite a head-scratcher. Thus, I spent every spare minute during breaks trying to make sense of the letter excerpt, as it had to be handed in by the end of the conference. Later in the day, I learned my friend, Dora was also working on it. When we both got stuck, we decided to collaborate, since we were doing this more for the fun, and wouldn’t be upset if we didn’t get the book. We handed in our paper and told the organizer we had worked on it as a team. He didn’t mind and told us we’d both get a book. Turns out, we were the only ones who completed the challenge. 


A month or so later I got an email from the same organizer:

Would you be interested in a Christmas break project? I recently got a scanned copy of Paul Tschetter’s diary and I would like to work with it, but it takes me too long to work with the script, plus his handwriting. It has a total of 56 pages. Believe it or not, it appears this has not yet been done!



Of course I agreed, even though I knew it would be a daunting task and would be more than a “Christmas break project”. Plus, I’d long been intrigued by the story where Paul and Lorenz Tschetter set off from Russia in search of a new home in America, for the Hutterites. Thus, I started transcribing as soon as I got my copy of the diary and found it interesting that it started with a thirteen stanza song, written by Paul Tschetter. I soon learned, Paul included a number of his songs about his travels in his journal. For example, when he got to Chicago he wrote a song about this city and the fire that destroyed most of it. His take on that disaster was, that God punished the wicked city. Most of these songs have never been published, therefore have never been sung by Hutterites, unlike so many of our forefather’s songs, which we have in a song book.



As I labour over this document, I’m reminded of the different skills it requires: First, I need to be able to read the old German Sitterling script. I quickly learned that it works best to study the handwriting carefully; get used to how the writer formed certain letters, and take note of the lack of punctuation. A good grasp of German and a substantial vocabulary is also essential. I have to be aware that German, like most languages, has changed over the years, and there are words that are no longer in use today. It also helps to know how sentence structure today differs from how it was centuries ago. Besides all that, I love the challenge of "language puzzles", a key ingredient for such an undertaking.



While I’m transcribing I wonder why Paul Tschetter rarely mentions his uncle Lorenz Tschetter who is traveling with him. Doesn’t he like his company? Or perhaps they don’t see eye to eye on some things. It just seems strange that the two traveling companions would not do more things together. Or maybe they are and Paul simply chose not to mention his uncle too much in his journal.



Paul Tschetter seems to be a fascinating character. His passion, determination and Anabaptist values come through on almost every page. These are especially obvious in his reflections and description of events. Paul spent a lot of time among the Mennonites who had settled in America earlier. Sometimes that included attending church services, and since Paul was a minister he sat in the front, and was occasionally asked to lead the service.



He clearly was not impressed that some Mennonite ministers had an evangelistic approach when delivering a sermon. One Sunday service in particular left him “bewildered” and he felt the urge to run from the church. “The minister marched back and forth behind the pulpit, as if he was insane.” Paul wrote. “He hammered on the pulpit with his fist and pointing to his heart he cried, ‘Herein must the Lord live.’ Sometimes he praised us to heaven and then again he damned us all into hell.” Having listened to Hutterite sermons my whole life, I can understand Paul’s bewilderment; our church services are still never conducted in such a dramatic fashion, instead, they’re read with a calm and strong assurance.



To glean some insight on this story, I read Paul Tschetter: The Story of a Hutterite Immigrant Leader, Pioneer, and Pastor by Rod Janzen. It’s a valuable resource, as it not only sheds light on this time in Hutterite history, but includes most of Paul’s diary. This is especially beneficial when I get to parts that are difficult to read due to fading ink. Reading this translated version of the diary, however, I wonder why some parts are missing? Did the translator not deem them important enough to include? 



Transcribing this diary is a long, slow process. Since I don’t know of an easier way to do this, I’m copying it by hand first. I have to use a magnifier, so the document has to lie flat on the table, and even so, I sometimes have to look very closely to decipher some words and phrases. So typing while doing all that would be even more cumbersome.



I’ve long been interested in this fascinating story, now I not only get to read the book, but also get a close look at Paul’s diary. When Paul, a former Lehrerleut member, embarked on this journey, his group was no longer living communally, but rather in villages like the Mennonites. However, they were still using the same language, the same sermons, and had many of the same beliefs as the communal Hutterite.



Paul’s diary and also the book mentioned earlier, are important documents for Hutterites; as far as I know, none of the communal Hutterites kept a journal of immigrating to America. Even though I knew Paul no longer lived communally when he wrote the diary, I could easily picture him as a communal Hutterite. He still dressed as one and had many of the same values; and his views often reminded me of an older Hutterite minister, even though he wasn’t that old. Additionally, all Hutterites left Russia within a few years, so they most likely had similar experiences.  



I'm always fascinated when I read a book and an old diary is part of the narrative. How about you, have you ever had a chance to read an old diary?