This Hidden Thing

I just finished reading Dora Dueck’s new novel This Hidden Thing. It is the story of a Mennonite girl, Maria Klassen, fresh from Russia, supporting her parents and siblings as a maid for a Winnipeg (Englisch) family; a life-altering experience there leads to life-long kept secrets.

I’ve written and proofread a few things for Dora when she was the editor at the Herald. Usually when I read things by someone I know, there’s a bit of a cringe factor, an awkwardness. Not so here! I kept marveling at her unexpected choice of words, the hominess of the characters (Haven’t I met her before?), the way smells from the story kept creeping into the room. It was perfect, poetic.

But there was also a distance. Sometimes when I put down fiction, I have to shake it off because I become the character. (I remember a camping trip with T. before kids, reading a novel about marital breakdown; I had to keep reminding myself that my marriage was fine, that there was no reason for the blanket of shame.)

I never felt like I was becoming Maria. I understood her, wept for her. I was also surprised by her, disagreed with her. She was very real, but so was her narrator. I could almost see Dora standing between us telling me her story.

I wondered about this: was the narrator so visible because I knew the author? Or was my analytical, editorial brain distancing me from Maria through my own appraisals?

I realize it was neither. For in the acknowledgments, Dora writes that Maria’s “long habit of reserve often made her resistant to my stubborn poking about in her life. We eventually reached something of a mutual understanding, I think, and I’m thankful for that.” The aloofness I sensed wasn’t a flaw in the story; it was the only way Maria’s secrets could be told: from a distance. Her self-protection wouldn’t let me any closer.

I imagine myself walking into Maria’s kitchen. She offers me zweibach and coke, but deflects all my personal questions. She reminds me of Oma. Always overseeing, correcting, instructing, warning, delegating, baking, offering. I remember at times dreading our visits, because I would feel her constricting words, the expectations (too many to count) that came with the $100 bills she folded into my palm. Many of them made no sense to me: Why would I one day regret going to a youth sleepover at the church? Why was it shameful to wear nail polish or earrings? Why was it okay to not watch TV, but sinful to watch another channel if Billy Graham was on?

Grandma was far less starchy (but she would have to be the one to marry the pious preacher). She was quiet and anxious, sometimes seeming to disappear, but when we were alone, she would speak of things that would not show on her Sunday morning face. And when she was served morphine with her coffee (How she loved her coffee!) in palliative care, she became downright blunt, witty, and free.

My mother-in-law can talk at length about her canning, knitting, gardening, painting, and baking, but I have yet to find the key that unlocks her childhood stories, her dreams, fears, opinions, or doubts. (In reading this book, it became clear to me why I feel exposed, almost subversive, posting my life stories online; the Mennonite blood resists.)

Fiction allows us to see into another. Because Maria let me see into her heart, from a distance, I can see a bit more of these dear women’s hearts as well. As a child, I feared becoming an old woman (Hagar Shipley took care of some of that) because they were so silent, so focused on household matters, I assumed they were dull. No so. Since they were born into the same time and place, and if they carry any of the pain Maria did (not necessary for the same reasons), I can understand their reticence , their need, their strength.

I hope This Hidden Thing remains in print for decades, passed down from mother to daughter (or, as in my case, from daughter to mother), because its secrets will be even more necessary for our granddaughters, removed in time from Maria’s generation, but “more alike than different.” When we speak secrets “sometimes it might sound like unhappiness…but more often, I think, it would sound like joy.”

In the story, when Maria touched someone’s arm, “she felt she was giving him what she could.” That’s what she gave me as well. And it was enough.

Mouse #5: poetic dumpster-diving

This week I acquired seven antique drawer knobs. I had to sneak out early in the morning and unscrew them from the broken dresser on my neighbour’s curb before the garbage truck arrived. This is way better than shopping. Not only is dumpster-diving free, it’s also exhilarating: part espionage/part rescue mission.

I signed out Annie Dillard’s Mornings Like This, without knowing what it was: a collection of “found poems.” Artists who write found poetry, explains Annie Dillard, “go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts — all objets trouvés, the literary equivalents of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Duchamp’s bicycle.”

I like the idea of making “sculptures” from other peoples’ junk and artifacts. When I write profiles for my Christian Week column, I’ve always thought of it as carving: I start with a block of interview notes, chip away the dull bits, and voila! The beautiful story takes shape. One of the things that held me back creatively, whenever I thought of writing fiction or poetry, was believing I had to blow ideas onto the page from thin air (the air in my brain). How silly! God creates out of thin air; humans reshape. Poetry is everywhere.

I wasn’t thinking about found poems when I wrote Deep Cleanser using skincare ads from my memory, but since I’ve started reading Dillard’s poems (She doesn’t even add words, but somehow manages to rearrange sentences, drop words, and in the process, changes the context from hunting to love and death), I’ve been more intentional about searching for “artifacts.” Once place I looked was hymns, which I admit I am not capable of improving upon. I doubt anyone is. They improve me. Woven into any poem about the swirling eddies of life, hymns add a bubbling undercurrent of hope.

Here’s a poem I wrote recently (I’m not totally happy with it yet, but I like its potential) about the fixations (stims) children with autism use to comfort themselves.

A Shelter from the Stim

Rock, for all ages, cleft are you,

in the shadow of the weight.

Pace to the humming of the light

your hands a shield against its knife.

While you draw, a fleeting groan,

Will your tears forever flow?

Spin the plate, the self — a web.

Your wheels turn better upside-down.

Clear your throat, click your tongue,

the language of a realm unknown.

Bow not before the judgment thrown.

Flap against your wounded side,

You can’t fly away.

Sometimes you just need a poem

I started my new job at the MB Herald. I plunged right in during production and had a lot of fun. I edited obits and book reviews, hunted down photos and news briefs, formatted birth and wedding announcements, helped choose a cover design, and listened to some pretty funny stories concerning the worst times to fall off a stage or split your pants. (I love talking with grown-ups again. Some of the themes aren’t that different from grade fives’ — they just come with a better sense of comic timing.)

When we had the magazine mostly assembled, we realized that there was a half page of blank space. The editor suggested filling it with a poem.

Well, I just started writing poetry again, I said, and handed her the poem my last “mouse” sent me. (See previous post.) It’s not the type of poem (descriptions of nature, references to Scripture, prayers, etc.) that the Herald usually prints. She liked it.

Isn’t it cool? I started this blog to get myself writing more creatively again, to learn to enjoy it again, instead of it always being about getting published. I did have fun…and I got published.

Just goes to show that you should always have two things: clean underwear (in case you split your pants: we recommend penguin-print.) and a poem. Because you never know.

Check the at the beginning of June for Angeline’s poetic debut.

Mouse #4: baby steps

When I read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, it was freeing to realize that you could publish a whole book of snippets. I think in little snippets. Ask the Women’s Accountability Group (my lifeline) that I’ve been part of for the past ten years, and they’ll tell you I pray in very short snippets. And when the thought ends, I tell God “goodnight” and that’s that!

The words “writing a book” have the same ring as “saving the planet” or “ending world hunger.” I can’t do that! The only thing that helps is convincing myself that yes, buying this bag of fair trade coffee and setting up this compost bin (Please keep the non-metaphorical mice away!–one of my short prayers.) does make a difference to the ozone layer and starving coffee farmers. Small acts. Baby steps.

I get this from my husband the time-management guru. (But don’t tell him I said so. Officially, I’m annoyed by David Allens and Mark Forsters in his head.) He keeps telling me to “break it down” (Little chuckle at the mental picture of us grooving to M. C. Hammer and the auditory memory of my Greek principal in high school enunciating over the P.A.: “You cannot touch this.”) into steps and do the “next thing.”

In breaking down the too-big-for-my-brain concept of “book-writing,” blogging works wonders. I don’t have to fill a blank notebook or a new Word doc; all I have to do is fill in this itty-bitty little box!  That’s a bag of fair trade coffee-sized task.

Today, I broke it down even further to the mug-o-coffee size: I told myself, “Good-looking (okay I didn’t say that part), write one line of poetry.” How hard could one line of poetry be? And who can tell whether one line is good or bad if it isn’t attached to anything?

And, wonder of wonders, when you write one line (like washing one dish, or folding one shirt, or tasting one cup of addictive, dark, rich, Ethiopian blend), you usually end up with two, or in this case, fifteen. (I’m not saying it’s necessarily good. But the goal at this stage isn’t to be more self-critical; it’s to become more prolific!)

I started with the theme of skin care ads, using their language to describe the power of words (what comes out when our lips “crack”) to transmit God’s healing to the faces of others. Enjoy–preferably with a cup of 10,000 Villages‘ Espresso. This poem should not cause eye irritation, but if it does, rinse with cold water.

Deep Cleanser

(not tested on animals)

It’s a cold-sore sky.

A bus stops by

the seven signs, as aging

blackheads, whiteheads pore

(results may vary) from its door.

Puffy-eyed, skin crawls along

–moisture lasts all day long.


days clog, tone, drain

irritated skin cleansed by pain.

Lips crack…refresh…Grace

–apply liberally to face.

Where you need him most,

he travels deep:

works while you sleep.

Mouse #3: mistakes

I have grandiose plans for my life. I want to change the world.

My parents taught me that every penny, every minute should be used wisely. Bible college and seminary confirmed: to the one whom much is given, much will be required; use God’s gifts wisely, because heaven and hell are at stake. So I often feel like every action is a test. Did I say the most edifying thing? Did I buy the most durable, economic product? Do I really need so much rest? Should I have tackled that project first? Have I given enough to charity?

I told my friend about this over coffee. Her wise words were: Do you think God is so small that your wasted dollar or hour will prevent him from saving the world?  Ouch, I needed that.

So I’ve decided that I’m not going to change the world today. I’m going to say a few dull, perhaps even obnoxious things, leave my coupons at home, have a bit of body odor, and forget to answer an email. Not intentionally, of course. But as a human being, I’m going to make mistakes, so I may as well give myself permission to be who I am.

This goes for writing too. I like to have everything formatted and grammatically correct from the get-go. It makes me feel sorted on the inside. But I’m giving myself permission to start messy. Post before perfection. Use fragments. If you widen the gate–if you don’t block the bad ideas, sloppy sentences, and less-than-eloquent words, a few extra good ones can get through too.

If I’m less uptight about my own mistakes, I’ll have more grace for others’ too. Grace is a powerful thing. Who knows: I might even change my world.