Thursday, March 03, 2016

"All that blood will never cover that mess"

Here's a scene from 10 years ago I've been mulling over lately -- a silo-raising I contributed to in Northern Alberta. It's not the day's activity I've got in mind, but the lunchtime conversation midway through it.

As we sat down to soup and sandwiches, I noted and commented on my host's Mennonite surname, adding that I'd pulled the same social stunt some years earlier with a girl I'd just met. Her response had been immediate and loud: "I'm Mennonite in name only!" Alas for her, her bold pronunciation on the matter had the unmistakable flat-vowel inflection of the rural Mennonites I'd grown up with (an accent not too far removed from the one lampooned in the Coen Bros Fargo) -- cause for ironic amusement, I thought.

My host managed a half-smile, then said, "Well, I suppose that's what I am: Mennonite in name only." His grandfather, he went on to say, was probably the last of his family to identify culturally and religiously as Mennonite. Grandfather was the one who came from Russia, where he'd had a large and thriving farmstead and was a promising young up-and-comer in the colony of his birth. "The Russians took all that away," said my host, his face growing dark. "All that, and then some."

So much for "Mennonite in name only."

The ironies remain, but none of the amusement. I'm sure I've heard a hundred variations on his grandfather's story. At the turn of the 20th, the Mennonites, who'd colonized the Russian steppes at the invitation of Catherine the Great, found themselves caught between the Bolsheviks and the Cossacks, and ravaged by either side. And if I know this story, you do too -- all the horrid details, the sort that silently filters down through generations.

Some blessed day we'll be Mennonite in name only.

And yet, and yet . . . here we were on a Canadian prairie farm well over 1,000 acres in size -- on what is historically defined as Treaty Land. His family was comfortably sheltered in a modern house with over 1,000 square feet of floor space. His girls were in the next room, watching Veggie Tales on satellite television. His lovely wife was booked in town for a Pilates class the next morning. And while nobody should ever equate a farmer's lot with a life of ease, my host's vocation was not only freely chosen, but in fact afforded a variety of comforts his persecuted grandfather would never have dared to dream of.

So why the anger?

Well, why not? On some level he's entitled to it. Nobody should have bones like that rattling in the family closet. And we all do.

One of my daily clicks sent me to this piece -- The Cult of Memory: When History Does More Harm Than Good, by David Rieff, which brings all of this musing to the front burner of my mental cookstove.

I might as well admit at the outset that I ground my teeth through the entirety of the piece. Feel free to slag Rieff for his breezy CliffsNotes summary of the cultural conflict you hold dearest to your own heart -- I couldn't stand how he willingly aligns with The Guardian's "stick it to Israel" editorial policy, somehow without noticing the irony that even if all of Israel were to miraculously adopt his "It's time to forget" mantra, aggrieved Palestinians would have to follow suit for the conceit to be any sort of success.

Still and all, I do believe it's among the questions sentient beings most need to ask themselves: at what point does the exercise of memory do me -- and my (acknowledged or not) tribe -- actual harm?

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