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?