On the Awe-full Bosom of Mother Earth

 I am a dual citizen on planet earth. As a lifelong prairie dweller, I made my peace long ago with a difficult landscape. When visiting family members mock Saskatchewan as the land that God forgot, I defend not only the clichéd delights—crocuses, meadowlarks, waving wheat fields, the scent of sage, sunsets and sunrises—but also fierce winter blizzards, the spectacular percussion of summer storms, the utter lack of boundaries in the sky.

 Nevertheless, when, as a young woman, I lived in Jasper, AB, for a summer, I gave my heart to the sublime and awful beauty of the Rocky Mountains as if I had been in exile until then and had only just discovered my true home. Becoming a lifelong vacationer in the Rockies seemed as natural as breathing. There I could forget the prairie’s harsh narratives of grasshoppers and drought, and my own small stories of grief. The mountains felt clean, uncontaminated by human failures (although I knew they were not); I could breathe here, I could feel the voice of the Divine.

View from the trail to Illecillewaet Glacier near Rogers Pass, BC

 By the time I first read about the correlation between the essential human spiritualities and the primary landscapes—forest, plains (or desert), water, and mountains—our family had been tenting and hiking in the Rockies for many years. Those vacations had always been so soul-restoring for me, that it took no great act of discernment to know that mountains were my spiritual home. There I was often caught up in worship, speechless and ecstatic in the face of a beauty both exquisite in its changeable colors and terrifying in its physical demands. This terrain is not to be taken lightly. Rocks may be ancient and solid; they are also unforgiving and moveable in dreadful ways. Yet I loved it all, and felt loved within it.

 Two summers ago, our family camped in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta. Above the gash of the coulee, where the Milk River flows past the hoodoos, lay the prairies, shimmering with heat, drawing the eye skyward to eternity. Apart from the trees along the river, this was closer to desert than anything we’d known before. Among the sage and grasses and prickly pear cacti lived prairie rattlesnakes and cottontail rabbits; on the sides of immense hoodoos near the river nested cliff sparrows in great colonies and pack rats in their untidy holes.

Hoodoos along the Milk River in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Writing-on-Stone has been sacred territory for indigenous peoples for hundreds of years. Their stories are etched on the rocks in symbolic pictures. On the barren tops of the cliffs, vision quests were held, and even now, recent sacred offerings left for the Creator are mute testimony of a strong human relationship with the earth.  

 Such a powerful spiritual place we were visiting, yet I felt only curiosity and wonder. My soul remained unmoved, as if it knew that I was an outsider, one whose heart had been given elsewhere and couldn’t be truly present here.

 Then came the night when heat made sleep impossible. Under an almost full moon, I needed no light to walk the campground road. A scant breeze ruffled stately cottonwoods into soft sibilant music. Could I ever learn to love this place? The moonlight on the nearby Sweet Grass Hills across the border in Montana was – tender? No, wrong word. “Cool” was more like it, with its old meaning of chilly distance.

Moonrise over the Sweet Grass Hills seen from Writing-on-Stone.

Back in the tent, I still couldn’t sleep although I lay quietly now. Then I felt it. The very soil – so close under me, less than two inches of man-made substances between me and it – rose and fell in a rocking motion that nearly stopped my heart in fear. Those 30 seconds of earth movement were no dream. A sudden scatter of agitated voices nearby asking “what happened?” told me it was real. For the next half hour, I waited, alert now, before feeling again two or three slight shiftings, then all was still.

 In the morning, I discovered that of the 6 adults in our group, all of us sleeping in light nylon tents, I was the only one who had felt the earth move. My story was greeted with courtesy but unspoken scepticism – until the next-site neighbour came over to tell us that her trailer had been shaken violently enough to wake her, and she wondered if mischievous teens had come through our site as well. When I told her what I had felt, she assumed that human hands had shaken our tent (I knew that was wrong).  Later I heard other campers whose trailers had been rudely shaken wonder who the culprits had been. All who had layers of human construction and several feet of air between them and the earth had experienced the event as a mechanical one of human agency.

 Then came news that an earthquake in Montana (5.8 on the Richter scale) had sent tremors even farther north than Writing-on-Stone. My “I told you so” satisfaction gave way abruptly to a reverent gratitude that I had been “chosen” to feel those tremors against my body. What was a rattling disturbance for everyone in trailers was, for a tent sleeper, an intimate pressure gentle enough not to wake anyone. If I had been sleeping, would I have awakened or would it have become part of my dreams? What does it really mean to be at one with the earth?   

 The next day, we hiked up through the hoodoos up to the level prairie to seek refuge from the heat in the excellent Visitors Centre.

Trail through hoodoos near Visitor Centre in Writing-on-Stone.

After a futile effort to absorb information, I volunteered to take my turn to stay outside with the dogs. Since they were content to pant beneath the picnic table, I was left alone with the land, from the grasses and sage at my feet to the towering hoodoos nearby, from the Milk River below me to yonder Sweet Grass Hills. This, this was the land that had moved and had moved me with it.  

Originally published August 30, 2017 in Prairie Messenger.

Sorting Through Family Stories and Finding My Place – Part 2

 The desk and floor in my study are cluttered again, this time not with just papers and open books—which I insist is the sign of a working mind—but also boxes of pictures and albums, old journals (mine and my father’s), and my father’s old briefcase with some ancient documents and a tattered Bible. I had not planned to delve into my family history again. I had been there and done that, more than once.   

On the floor are two photo albums that belonged to my parents and my mother’s Bible.

Yet we do not choose when convergences will invite us into new layers of self-knowledge. Emails arrived. Old pictures were shared, not all of which I’d seen before. Questions were asked. Memories came back to haunt. Different stories were told that I hadn’t heard or remembered. And reminders of mortality were showing up. For some conversations, it was already too late.

It seemed wisest to pay attention and prepare myself to re-enter the shape-shifting nature of retold stories. For one thing was becoming clear: each time I have become caught up in the formative stories of my parents—and my people (the Mennonites)—some new information emerged that demanded a changed narrative. Just how that also changed my identity, my sense of who I was in relation to my family and my inherited faith story, I wasn’t always clear. But these stories mattered, whether I understood just how or not.

What I had worked out, after the third or fourth go-around, was that one’s identity is shaped in a spiral fashion. Instead of progressing in a nice, straight line, preferably upward toward greater wisdom, it is the nature of human self-awareness to keep circling back to old material, not to rehash old emotions without change (at least one hopes not), but to return to problems not yet resolved, old knotty issues that never made sense, now seen in new contexts and thus from new perspectives. Hopefully with more knowledge and greater maturity as well.

Dramatic versions of startling discovery followed by a completely new self-identity are the stuff of novels, of course—protagonist discovers skeleton in the closet (sometimes literally – see Sarah’s Key) and has to re-imagine entirely who she or he is. It’s the stuff of memoirs, too, such as My Secret Sister. Perhaps part of the reason we read such accounts so eagerly is that, on some level, we’re all aware of how partial our knowledge is of our parents’ lives, yet how important it can be. Without some sense of who the people are who raised us – as individuals and more than just their roles in relation to us – we cannot really understand ourselves.

My father’s well-worn Bible (upper left) and various immigration documents kept in a very fragile cloth wallet.

 In my various explorations of family histories, I have found no actual skeletons in any closets. Mostly, what I learned about the sources of my parents’ fears and prejudices made it easier to forgive them for not being perfect parents, although I am still learning to forgive myself for not being the perfect daughter (that’s material for some other posting, if ever!).

 What is more difficult is sorting through the stories of who my people are. My childhood vision of good Mennonites being led almost miraculously by God to the safe country of Canada, out of the power of the evil Communists who were destroying the beautiful, clean, and prosperous godly Mennonite villages in Ukraine is no more. That mythologized version of the story was completely revised in my mind during my four years of thesis-writing when I felt as if the self who I had been was being pulled apart and somehow I would have to salvage the necessary parts.  

Why had I never known that the Mennonite villages were not small utopias at all, but were seriously divided, economically, the landowners with power in the church and community and the landless labouring class? And I had known nothing of the huge estates owned by the wealthiest Mennonites who depended upon an impoverished Russian peasantry for cheap labour, nor that the initial land grants under Catherine the Great had given Mennonites advantages that the Russian people had always resented. Small wonder, then, that Revolutionary fervour got out of hand in the prosperous, privileged Mennonite colonies.  

Ironically, now that I had a context in which to ask truly important questions of my parents, I could no longer ask them. Yet would they have been able to re-examine their primary narratives? Is there a point beyond which such personal foundation stories can no longer be retold in new language? Will I know when that happens to me?

My mother’s Bible, with a list of dates of sibling birth and deaths, some cards that were meaningful to her, and a map of the Molotschna Colony where she spent her early childhood.

And now I have re-entered the stories again. I had not thought that would be necessary after our pilgrimage to Ukraine, to visit the birth-places of my parents. Yet that pilgrimage led to sharing stories with the next generation, which is stumbling into its own necessary questions. Then—oh, the serendipitous beauty of mysterious timing—came the emails from cousins I hadn’t seen in decades, if ever.

The pictures and questions and stories, and subsequent visits to libraries and museums, are drawing me into a different kind of rethinking of the family history. Until now, I had been placing myself into these stories through asking “who am I in relation to my parents?” and “who am I in relation to my people, my ethnic roots?”  What was missing was connection to the extended families.

For the record: to my wonderfully discovered clan of maternal cousins – thank you! I had not realized how much my soul craved a fuller family context, which you are now providing. I had been doing my story-work alone, without the help of those who share portions of my history and half of my genes. To see my grandparents and my mother through stories told by her siblings and her nieces and nephews changes my perspective again, rounds out the landscape. Like the poet Stanley Kunitz, in “The Layers,” I feel now as if “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own.”

A clean study again – for now.

A child’s curiosity can absorb some family stories; the young adult hears the same stories with idealistic disdain for bad choices; the middle-aged parent ruefully acknowledges that old family behavior patterns have not been left behind after all, but are being subconsciously repeated; and the older adult, with leisure now, and presumably emotional maturity enough to hold all sadness with respect, seeks not to achieve  closure for good and all (ambiguity will always remain), but to add what wisdom is possible before bequeathing those stories to the next generations to live into however they choose.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes. 

Stanley Kunitz