When Tidying Is not Enough

Cranberry Flats Conservation Area, south of Saskatoon.
Nature has its own transformations, its rhythms of tidying up.

            My father, a German-speaking refugee from South Russia, had two terms for cleaning up: one was German – aufräumen; and the other, we assumed, was Russian – rozmak (it might have been Ukrainian for all we knew since he had grown up in what he knew as Russia and we now know as Ukraine.)

 Aufräumen was routine, not to be shirked. It meant tasks like dusting furniture, washing dishes, washing floors, cleaning the bathroom, making beds, washing equipment in our dairy barn, putting fresh straw down for the cows, and shoveling out the manure. It also meant the final stage of any project, pleasurable or not, like sweeping up wood shavings after building something, putting away board games after a Sunday afternoon, packing up books and scribblers after homework was done, storing tools in their proper place after fixing the tractor, rinsing paint brushes and rollers when the walls were done, putting away toys as small children get ready for bed.

Aufräumen – both verb and noun. Its root, Raum, meant room, or sufficient space. With the suffix auf (up, or lift) added, the word conveys quite literally the image of picking stuff up to create more room, a cleaner, more open space. If not done often enough, it led inevitably to the other kind of clean-up. . . .   

Rozmak was something else entirely, as my father used the word. It was likewise both noun and verb in his lexicon, naming actions that were drastic, superlative, disruptive. It’s what happened when some area of the house or garage or yard required more than a mere lifting up of stuff to create a cleaner space. Instead, it meant a wholesale dismantling of the current order (more likely, disorder), and restructuring from the bottom up. Inevitably, it resulted in a very full garbage can or huge boxes of stuff to haul away to some charity or rummage sale.

If it was “time for rozmak” (as my father used to phrase it), we children became nervous about our favourite things – clothes, toys, trees, old implements back in the bush that were perfect for imaginative play. Rozmak meant deciding that the entire pantry in the basement needed to be moved elsewhere, never mind if a wall or two had to be knocked out or added; or the kitchen had become unworkable.

Rozmak applied as well to organic matter as to inanimate structures.

 As I learned from my father, rozmak required stubborn determination and an ability to see what could be done and to discard what had once been precious or seemingly so. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. One never knew just how far rosmak might go, what might have to be sacrificed before the designated space became beautiful once more.

  Rozmak – almost a made-up word, I have discovered. It was either a mispronunciation on my father’s part or a mishearing on the part of his children who all distinctly remember the “k” sound. The word, my Russian-speaking friend told me, is actually rozmah, denoting “very deep and wide and bold actions.” She used the illustration of a birthday party, which could be a modest and simple affair, a few guests, simple menu; or held with rozmah, with 100 guests and expenses be damned.

That my Mennonite father would have chosen such a passionate Slavic word and applied it to rather utilitarian ends seems typical to me now. Hard-working farmer that he was, devout and conservative, he nevertheless revealed, every now and then, something of a streak of daring, almost a gambler’s recklessness.  

            Aufräumen and rozmah.

 Does it matter whether one is engaged in aufräumen or in rozmak? Other than in the amount of energy and focus required? Not to mention the degree of commitment to the completion of a huge task, and to the survival of the core of whatever is being reconstituted? 

These two words from my childhood have been echoing in my mind as I listen to the news and read current affairs magazines. Nothing seems predictable any more or safe; 2020 has challenged our civic institutions in ways not seen since the 1918 flu epidemic or the World Wars.

 The October issue of The Atlantic (a US-based magazine I would heartily recommend for its thoughtfulness and thorough research) examines the possibilities for hope in the US. Particularly important is “Make America Again” by George Packer. What Packer offers by way of remedy for the hyper-partisan, now almost impotent legislative system, is a kind of rozmah – a wholesale clean-up that requires a re-evaluation of the core of the democratic project and a willingness to consign to the rubbish heap those practices that have become toxic to the public good.

 When we look at our own parliamentary system, I wonder how much toxicity has leached into our corridors of power as well. Does our parliamentary system in Ottawa require just a tidying up of details, a putting away of silly games, and a washing up of dirty laundry? Or is it time to host a rummage sale of political practices and attitudes before rot really sets in? How shall we handle our structures of law and order? Will a dusting cloth be enough or is it time to rearrange the furniture or even knock out a wall or two?

 In the midst of such questions, can we please remember that rozmak, even of the most thorough variety, even in its most reckless mood, is not a revolution? Its primary aim is not destruction. Instead, the whole point is to preserve what is worth keeping and make it serve its intended purpose with greater clarity and beauty.

Catastrophes can fix our minds on a common crisis, pull down political and regulatory barriers that stand in the way of progress, and spur technological leaps, bringing talent and money together to solve big problems

(“How Disaster Shaped the Modern City” by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, October, 2020, p. 69)

Saskatchewan faces an election. Shall we ask our candidates if they are willing to “hold rozmak” where needed, even if it costs all of their political capital? And what do they consider the core structure that should remain in place and be made more humane and beautiful?

Could We Please Make Some Anniversaries Unnecessary?

(begun December 6, 2019, completed just before International Women’s Day)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the massacre at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. That first mass shooting in Canada (it remains the deadliest). Every year on December 6th since then, there have been public remembrance services for the women who died that day and renewed calls for vigilance and for greater equality. Memorials have been set up in various cities across Canada.

photo of candles, two long-stemmed roses, and three teddy bears, arranged on church steps draped with a black cloth

Since then, mass shootings in North America have become more frequent and their targets more varied: children in schools, concert goers, Muslims, Jews, party-goers, journalists, women again. As if the fearful, the isolated, the helplessly angry know that education and music and diversity are agents of peace and freedom – or can be. Admittedly, artists and musicians can bring people together for nefarious purposes as well as for good ends. And partiers can dance for and with everyone, or band together to exclude.

One can pray for the death of enemies—and thus inevitably become more inclined to bring those prayers to fruition—or one can pray for strength and peace for all neighbours, regardless of skin color or ideology or accident of citizenship and inherited traditions.

still life photo of celtic cross, and two candles, on the base of draped white satin.

 In the end, we can choose to smolder in our house of hatred or throw open windows and doors to let the heart embrace beauty however it is embodied. We can choose to embrace the dignity and worth of every human being or recast some humans as enemies. Those choices are, admittedly, strongly shaped by those we happen to be in relationship with, not to mention surrounding circumstances that influence what worldview we find most compatible and safe. Yet, surely, at some point, we can reach for sufficient maturity to reflect on how we might play the cards that have been given us.  

still life with two different candles holders and a silver cross necklace.

What I fail to understand is how we as human beings dare to ascribe superiority and merit to those characteristics we can impossibly choose. Why should I as a woman be deemed unworthy of some privilege that men claim as a birthright? (For a detailed example of “birthright” privilege, read Price of Honour by Jan Goodwin)

I did not choose to be born as a woman any more than my brothers chose to be born as men. Neither I nor they are justified in levelling blame or in boasting about either bodily state. Nor did I earn my whiteness that I should have reason to be proud of it. Equally I should not accept reprimand for my pigmentation or lack thereof.

Now what I do with the current privilege (or disadvantage) of any of my birthrights is another matter. Part of acquiring wisdom and equanimity as we live through each day is learning how to differentiate between what we might be responsible for and what we’re not. Then follows the need for courage to act in ways that matter, according to values that have come to be recognized as universal—e.g. the preciousness of every human life, compassion, the right to have basic human needs met, etc.

More difficult is thinking through what others are responsible for. Our own circumstances we know and our own motives we can learn to understand if we take the time and effort. The circumstances and motives of others? Not so much. Let there be compassion and patience in abundance before we dare to judge.

A personal story: on December 6, 1989, the day that Marc Lepine entered the École Polytechnique and fatally shot 14 women, six of them in a mechanical engineering class, I was back in university, as a mature student. I no longer recall my reactions that day, or my reactions in the following year when the first anniversary of the shooting took place. Mostly I was preoccupied with trying to balance the demands of being a parent to teen-agers, a daughter to my elderly and increasingly ill parents, a wife to my husband, and a student in PhD studies.

In the midst of that stew of obligations, I met a fellow graduate student (J), likewise a mature student with many family demands, but from a very different cultural background and set of circumstances over which she had as little choice as I had over mine. She was Indigenous, and I had grown up in a milieu of unspoken and even unconscious prejudice, although during a few years on the board of MCC Saskatchewan, I had heard enough about the experiences of Indigenous peoples to provoke some serious re-thinking.

Nevertheless, I was still quite unprepared for J’s angry response to colonial attitudes in the literature we were reading, literature that I had grown up enjoying and even revering. I felt seared by J’s bitter resentment of white privilege and confused about our Canadian history.

Just what led to our choosing to have a long lunch together, I hardly know.  Perhaps it was the need to function together in a small graduate seminar class, or maybe, through class discussion, we had glimpsed the possibility of common ground. I don’t recall who offered the invitation. As it turned out, that luncheon was an eye-opener for us both.

I listened to her talk about her father, a runner of real prowess, who earned an Olympic medal which he was not allowed to keep—how was it that the Indian agent felt empowered to confiscate it? That seems like such an act of gratuitous humiliation. I heard bits of J’s personal story that moved me deeply. How had she been able to become a conscientious mother and diligent, brilliant graduate student? I gained a new respect for her courage in overcoming disadvantages that I could only dimly comprehend. I felt sure that I could not have done the same.

On the other hand, J was startled to realize that my background had not been unbroken privilege. She had not known that Mennonites also revered the land, although differently than Indigenous peoples, or that our history included the Russian Revolutions, violent fragmentation of families, and desperate flight to different countries. As I talked of my parents’ regret over the loss of what they considered their homeland and their struggle to adjust to a different country and a different culture, she sympathized.  

Did all misunderstandings disappear at once? No. Did I learn everything I needed to know in order to understand the lives of Indigenous peoples? Not even close. But I did learn to appreciate something of J’s viewpoint in subsequent classes and could hear her contributions without bristling inwardly. I have since followed her scholarly contributions with interest. 

Reflecting on that experience, now decades ago, as long ago as the massacre at École Polytechnique, I wonder how long we need to keep memorializing that tragic event. Could we balance the retelling of that awful day by celebrating some event, some occasion in which diverse people had come together in peace and laughter?

Photo of dining-room table covered with an Iranian cloth of intricate weave, with a table centerpiece of three clay women in a circle with a lit candle in the centre.
The table covering is a gift from an Iranian friend.

I know, our calendars are already full, what with holidays from several religious traditions, special days such as International Women’s Day, Vimy Ridge Day, Groundhog Day, National Tartan Day, and whatever label we use to make sure that we get a long weekend in February.

Anniversaries are meaningful, whether personal (that first real kiss, the death of a family member) or national or even international. And I do not wish to denigrate them. Furthermore some horrors are so dehumanizing that we must remember them lest we repeat them. That had been the intent of Remembrance Day. What I fear is that we foster antipathy to perceived enemies or somehow, unwittingly I hope, glorify violence. Perhaps what I wish for is a continued, daily awareness that the most basic, efficacious response to violence is learning to see the Other as friend.

            Let’s share tea and break bread (or muffins) together more often than we light candles.  

photo of same table but with a cheerful blue tablecloth made in Bangledesh, the three women-centrepiece with lit candle, two tea cups and a plate with two muffins.
Table ready for two. Tableclcoth made in Bangladesh.