On Saturday night at the Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale
I can almost hear that beautiful river
flowing in the voices of men
gathered from the tribes of Beachey and Brenneman,
from farms near Shipshewana, Warsaw, Angola—employees
of Mennonite Mutual Aid singing next to chosen sons returned
from universities of Harvard and Chicago, or
high school athletes (still called Redskins)
trying not to think of getting
lucky later on. Under the lights in the fair-
ground pavilion—yes! We'll gather at the river—
our hands sticky with apple fritters and Bar-B-Q, our streets
of gold quilted in the jeweled patterns of a hundred sewing circles,
our hearts drunk on the harvest we buy and sell
not for salvation, but for relief. We revel in the deep vocal
harmonies of our plain-suited and covering-capped
brothers and sisters, their true pitches unspoiled
by piano accompaniment, while they revel
in the heavenly soaring of trumpets—still forbidden
in their churches. My white-haired father wanders
through the crowd hoping to find someone who can talk
as the daughter beside me, freed from homework, sits and listens,
circling all of the
t's in her program
just the way her daddy used to do in church.
Coming Home to pages of towels folded and stacked in gradations of pale color like Gatsby's shirts or opening upon room after light-filled room in Garnet Hill where elegant printed linens and mahogany headboards invite repose like an instant bed and breakfast, or scooping into Crate and Barrel for corduroy slipcovers and weathered end tables to furnish a living room of bedroom slipper comfort where I lounge in loose knits with Eddie Bauer, man of my credit card dreams, who, like Chuck Williams of Sonoma, graciously waits, season after season, to outfit my kitchen with heart-shaped waffle iron on Valentine's Day or cover my picnic table with Provencal accessories in the endless summer of catalogues from which, in Indiana, in February, I can order a palm-fitting Felco pruning shears to snip imaginary lavender buds, or Japanese farmer's pants to wander Smith and Hawken's artfully unmanicured prairies, close my eyes to conjure Martha's effortless cuisine, hand my Hearthsong children pictures of wool-stuffed dolls to snuggle with. Instead I wake to stir up Gourmet's currant-cornmeal hotcakes for their breakfasts from ingredients I miraculously have on hand: pretending I am not stranded at wit's end, laundry undone, dishes crusting over, bills swelling the mailbox, Mennolink stories of starving Iranian families glutting my Email, Amazon.com at my fingertips, and L.L. Bean an overnight delivery away.
We are more than the sum total of our wounds,
the priest's voice echoes through the nearly-empty cathedral.
For me his words conjure up images
from the famous Mennonite bible of suffering-those who entered the flames singing in hopes that their descendants would not sit where I am sitting, listen to holy words in a temple
of full of graven images. But Jan Luykens' portraits of the martyrs are images too, images that keep the wounds of our forefathers and foremothers visible, wounds we choose to pass on, saying,
this is how others suffered for you. No matter what
you do now, you can never suffer enough. As a girl
tells me on the phone from a place 12,000 miles away how
she slit her arm last night from elbow to wrist, the priest's words flood back to me. And I am angry. Who taught her that by wounding her own body she could release herself
from the terrible guilt of being human? Who taught her that pain validates anything? I listen on NPR to news of a Palestinian boy shot in his father's arms by Israeli soldiers
and cry out against the sacrifice of Isaac. I read about Bosnian women who cannot admit the enemy rapes they have suffered for fear of rejection or even slaughter by their own kinsmen.
I want to tell the girl that writing on the body is not writing. That people are not martyred, they are murdered. That war is just mass slaughter, not the validation of a nation. Damn it.
Let's get more literal. The body's just a body, and each of us has only one.
When Mennonites pray must the folded body be clenched, words thrust upwards into a head voice, a pure tenor cry? Om shanti chants the yoga teacher as I imagine life force flowing through my stretched and reclining frame. The breath—pranayama—raises my diaphragm, fills the cavity of my chest as I try to pray without images. Is God only in the upper register? Or encased in words—immortal, invisible—on some celestial shelf? Or is he a Mennonite watching my stretched, reclining body from a pulpit in a plain coat, uneasy lest I breathe in other gods as I relax into the rhythm of the breath?
When I entered your room for the last time I saw a shell— broken—your head thrown back, mouth open—as though something had hatched and taken flight.
Just that morning I had rubbed your ankles with oil, but now your legs are stiff to the touch purple stains pooling under tissue paper skin as capillary walls
give way, the process of return beginning. At the hospital entrance I had met the women weeping— mother, sister, niece, pastor— who told me the story or your last
breath, which I imagine now— angel presences hover as my sister plays her violin—Cast thy Burden Upon the Lord—and after days of uphill breathing your face reflects
a moment of sheer delight—Christ We Do All Adore Thee. I carry this story with me like a garment. Each time I tell it the circle widens as with the telling of another
story, an empty tomb, the stone rolled away, and nothing to fill the empty space but language.