I don't remember hearing Jeff Gundy give his paper "In Praise of the Lurkers (Who Come Out to Speak)" at the Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College in 1997, but I must have, because I was there and because the title—it is also Chapter 6 in Walker in the Fog—leapt out at me with such familiarity.
It doesn't matter, because I read it this time as though I had never heard it before, and with much different understanding than I would have had nearly 10 years ago.
In my reading of Walker in the Fog, Chapter 6 is the essence to which this collection of essays distills. What is someone who walks in fog, after all, if not a lurker, whether s/he means to be or not? When you walk in thick fog, like that shown on the book's cover, you only see what is immediately around you—and you create that world around you. If there's anyone else out there in the fog, neither one of you can tell who the other is until the worlds bump softly against each other, like a canoe meeting a dock. You create the other. S/he creates you. And the common denominator to all of it is mystery—the mystery of who you both are and how you come together.
In these essays, Gundy considers the meaning of Mennonite community and of the writers and artists who are "in but not of" that community. Mennonites who grow up to create poetry, fiction, and other literary art know in their bones how to be "the quiet in the land" yet they are quiet in their own land at the risk of their sanity and even their lives. These are the children who recognize that the community that nurtured them—even if the nurture took a twisted form, true in the experience of some of the poets Gundy invokes but, significantly, not all—also wounded them. They know that all communities do this. They know that from the confluence comes the art.
Gundy's muses as he wanders the maze of community and world, spirit and flesh, humility and knowledge, are mostly other poets and writers—Jean Janzen, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen, Rudy Wiebe, Dallas Wiebe, Scott Holland, Keith Ratzlaff, and Julia Kasdorf—as well as venerable church fathers living and dead, particularly Harold S. Bender (deceased) and John L. Ruth (still very much alive). William Stafford ("almost a Mennonite" with Church of the Brethren as his denomination), Wallace Stevens, and William Blake are also frequent inspirations.
I once thought of myself as "a writer" but now, even though I write for a living, I'm not sure I'd claim the title. What I am for sure is a lurker (interesting that the word rhymes with my last name and, though I can't prove it, has likely at some point in my life been my last name according to a piece of junk mail appearing in a long-forgotten mailbox). Gundy writes: "I … suspect that lurkers often feel compelled to take whichever side seems less popular" (140). So that explains it.
But even more deeply resonant is this: "To be a lurker is to walk the streets knowing at once that you are in the community, inseparable from it, and at the same moment in a world far away, one where strange voices whisper brilliant, frightening sentences and demands—the most frightening demand of all being that you listen even when you know that doing so will mean that you must change your life. It is to feel yourself a disgrace to both worlds, knowing that you really are at home in neither, and that you can never do justice to either one" (140). Only for me, the two poles are not "the Mennonite community" and "the world" but "being Mennonite" and "living in Appalachia," where I spent a good part of my childhood and adolescence, to which I returned as a young adult, in which I have not lived for the last 13 years—a place where I will always be welcome and never at home.
After I had read Walker in the Fog through Chapter 6, and then as I continued with the rest of the book, I realized I might not have been the best person to review it. All I can say is: "If you write or you love reading what others write, read this—it's true. But each reader will have to decide what is true and what is truth." Yet isn't that the way of all readers?
I am not a writer because I have not, like the poets Gundy calls on here, "[bent] the hints and glimpses and obstinate questionings . . . into some shape that might be of some use to a few others."
I realized I could do two things with this book review—cover it chapter by chapter (and though it hangs together on common themes as mentioned above, each chapter is reviewable and eminently discussable in itself; did Cascadia Publishing form it into 13 chapters on purpose, I wonder, to make it suitable as Sunday school curriculum that follows 13-week cycles?) or, more simply, recognize its challenge. Mennonites who write, where in the fog are you? And how can you make of the mystery something "that might be of use to a few others"?