+++Claudia fällt aus+++

This morning I watched the world from my fourth floor window. It was 5 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. I opened my window and stuck my head out over the edge of the building and breathed in.

You know back in Canada, when you were a kid and it was winter and your ma woke you early in the morning to go to school, but you knew that as soon as your bare feet touched the cold floor a harsh cold would enter your body that would accompany you throughout your entire day, and would only be fully warmed by the blanket in your bed during the next night?

It was this blanket that I sat wrapped in, crosslegged looking out onto the road below breathing in the fresh, brisk November air.

The bakery across the road was already open. I saw a man walk out cupping a warm coffee and I watched the baker shuffle around in the dimly lit front room, making sure everything was ready to go. I saw the mail carriers at the post office next door, sort the mail, load their bikes and smoke one last cigarette before riding into the day.

As I sat breathing in the fresh cold air, in the perfectly cozy blanket, I took comfort knowing this was exactly the place I needed to be. While the rest of the world seemed to be waking up, I could sit still and anonymously watch their restlessness, restful myself. It was comforting considering how restless things have felt recently.

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My mind is a bit of a mess lately, so I thought I’d let you into the web.

Many parts of my trip have not gone according to plan. The University did not accept me and I transferred to a full time practicum at the last minute, without any real preparation or idea of what that meant. Now I teach german. I go into each class insecure and leave feeling exhausted and questioning whether I’m helping or hindering the students, as though fleeing a war torn country wasn’t enough, now they also have to endure my shabby classes.

But its not all bad. Today, my beginner class finally, after 3 classes, understood all the parts of  a family. The words for grandmother, aunt, nephew, son, sister in law etc. When I introduced the topic last week there was only confusion and a startling sense of naïveté when one older man asked where the second wife should go on the tree – there was no room on my prescribed german family tree.

Aside from teaching a beginners course and leading 3 conversational courses a week, I am interested in the larger governmental and social structures surrounding refugees and I visit as many presentations on the topic as I can. I’ve become sensitive to calling it “The Refugee Crisis”. I don’t know a lot, but I do know I wouldn’t like to be referred to as a “crisis”. And, I think it makes refugees sound like the perpetrators of the misfortune they endure.

I visited an evening presentation about rescue efforts in the Mediterranean sea last Friday. A doctor who volunteered on three missions showed us pictures and told us of his experiences. I found it sobering to see the faces of people who willingly got onto defect boats and wagered the very real possibility of death, rather than staying where they were, all in the hopes that someone would rescue them and bring them to Europe.

Another image I will not forget is the picture of a cruise ship on that same sea. Imagine that tour guide, “And over on your left you’ll see an overcrowded life boat with people sans PFD that might probably die. Bet they wish they had chosen, “The Good Life Cruises” for their vacation.” Haha … or not so much.

And then, I heard about how NGO’s were criminalized for “assisting illegal immigrants” and how 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean sea (a conservative estimate).

A picture of Europe as a medieval fortress began to form in my mind, with a moat and a cackling King watching from his secure tower as people drown because he has lifted the draw bridge. And, at the same time he’s counting his profits from selling and exporting weapons to those same affected areas. And then he uses that money to take a cruise.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this and I find it all very discouraging. I listened to a Wade Davis podcast the other day and he said, “Pessimism is an indulgence.” That stuck with me. So now I ask:

What is my role in all of this?

I’ve encountered one exhausted, overworked, discouraged, cynical but still passionate social worker after the other. I’m not interested in taking the weight of the world upon my two shoulders, as it seems most of them have. I think we should all stop and take a deep breath once in a while, even the trains do it!

If you’ve ever travelled by train in Germany it’s likely you’ve come across this sign:

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It seems unbelievable to me, that we’re just supposed to accept that, you know “today is just not that train’s day”. Why do we not extend that same grace to people?

I had a sinus infection this weekend, and then I took Monday and Tuesday off. It was great. I watched The Truman Show, and Barry, and PS I Love You and The Italian Job in two days. I slept so much. +++Claudia fällt aus+++. It’s tough to carry these burdens, among the many others, and we need to be gracious with ourselves.

What is my role?

Right now my role is to diligently do my work at the Friedenshaus and wade through the despair, seeking one glimmer of hope after the other.

I am needed where I am. It is so good that I am here now, even if it’s hard and entirely different than I thought. It lets me know good can come from any situation.

Life is a funny thing and God is somehow good. Like a warm blanket in the cold.

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A Groovy Group of Germans

If you’re ever in a new city, find the seniors. They have time and excitement, wisdom and stories. And if they like you, the might just take you places.

It was halloween. I bought Kinder Bonbons, in case some lost goblins and witches happened to wander to my fourth floor dungeon, and a bottle of wine for me. I planned to eat and drink and watch some dumb movie and try not to feel too sorry for myself.

Instead, I had a moment of courage, when I realized that I missed singing and decided to do something about it. I googled “Ludwigshafen Chor” and the Beethoven Chor Ludwigshafen was the first to come up. It said that they practice every Wednesday from 19:45- 22:00 and that newcomers are welcome. It was 19:10, so I made the decision and visited the “Beethoven Chor Ludwigshafen”. It was great. I met Ulla, who showed me to a seat in the Alto 1 section and we got to singing Mendelssohn’s “Wie ein Hirsch, wie ein Hirsch, so schreit meine Seele Gott zu dir, wie ein Hirsch, wie ein H-i-i-i-irsch etc.” It was repetitive but magical, as these things are. God, I have missed singing.IMG_0724

It is a seniors choir, but my goodness, the sopranos could hit those high c’s. What a groovy group of germans. They were so very german, with their brightly coloured glasses frames and their scarves and I’m willing to bet much money that each woman in that choir has a pair of white pants at home. And, they all have great names, like Lothar and Peter and Eckhart and Margarete and Ulla, and Claudia – turns out my name was popular in Germany during the 60’s and 70’s, – so I guess I fit right in.

After the rehearsal Ulla invited me to go along with ‘their group’ for a drink. It was a wonderful time. They had bier, I had wine, we ate fries and talked and laughed. I told them some of the stories that I’ve gathered over the course of the last couple of months and they were very curious. I taught them the two Arabic phrases I know, and I think I just may have slightly opened their eyes to the refugee situation occurring right under their noses.

Before I knew it we were exchanging emails and they were asking when I was free and what I wanted to see. I asked them what was worth seeing and now they’re all psyched to show me around Worms sometime. You know Worms (where Martin Luther ate a diet of mud pie), right? Anyway, Ulla, Juergen, Peter and Claudia (the other one), are all pretty amazing. They’re in their mid sixties, retired folk and I think they’re my first real friends outside of my practicum in this new town of my life that is Ludwigshafen.

The evening was in an odd way fitting for Halloween. I couldn’t believe what was happening the entire time. It felt like I had been tricked into uncovering this amazing treat that will continue to give me joy throughout my entire time here in Ludwigshafen.  It really pays off to have a little courage and walk into a room full of strangers and just go along with whatever comes. And, best of all, I was in bed by 11:30. That’s my kind of crowd. I can’t wait to retire.

Der Ganz Normale Wahnsinn

A drunk old man on the train from Cologne to Mainz on Tuesday gave me an ‘Ohrwurm’ as he nursed one Koelsch Bier after another. An earworm – a song that’s stuck in my head. It goes, “Das ist der ganz normale Wahnsinn, Wahnsinn, Wahnsinn!” Imagine that repeated over and over again by an excited, tipsy, fellow. It’s a song by Udo Juergens, I later found out, that roughly translates into, “the whole ordinary madness, or insanity” (Insanity as in “awesome” or ‘crazy’ in a positive sense). This old man was completely fascinated by the countryside along the Rhine. And yes, it is insane how beautiful the hills and the forests beginning to show the colours of fall are, with castles poking out the tops of the trees. It is insane.

He was drunk, and so I was set to dismiss what he was blabbering on about, but as I listened I found myself agreeing with his nonsense. Has this ever happened to you? This guy was on to something, and I didn’t want to take him seriously – but he was so right. He was angry about the production of coal, and nuclear power plants and deforestation. He became emotional when speaking of the beautiful world that God created and entrusted us with only for us to treat as we do. And then, he’d look out the window, be astounded by the view and break out into his song about the normal insanity that we take for granted.

He got out in Mainz and I continued on to visit family friends in Duehren and take part in the yearly grape harvest. They live in a cozy house on a hill with their four kids and they come from a long line of winemakers that have vineyards in these beautiful hills. I got to help in the harvest and it was a dream come true. I kept exclaiming at the beauty and the joy of it all and while they all enjoy it as well, it was ordinary for them. A couple times they even said that my fascination and praise was a little extreme. For them it was ordinary, for me it was madness. The whole ordinary madness. And yes, I hummed the song as I worked (you can listen to it here if you’d like).

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And they think this is ordinary!
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Oma with her ‘Mercedes’ cause its worth that much to her

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I am a vineyard tourist

So much of my life and my experience is insane. The chance I have to take a year and go be with people from different worlds is insane. What a privilege! And yet, so much of my ordinary life is also incredible. We have so much to be grateful for! Thanks to that old man in the train and Udo Juergens, I’ll keep my eye out for more of those incredible things, that might just go unnoticed disguised as ‘ordinary’.

Flemish Flea Markets and Mass

A week ago today I got dropped off into the middle of a flemish flea market. Yes, it’s true. I rode along with my cousin and his wife on their honeymoon and they kicked me out at 7:30 in the morning onto a boulevard in Bruges.

I walked through this market in a bit of a haze. All around me folks were setting up lamps and furniture, tea pots and art. Others were pulling wagons behind them, heading towards the stands prepared to return with a hefty loot. As I walked, a bright red vase caught my eye. It had a peculiar shape and I thought I’d take a closer look. I picked it up and the salesman came over. I asked how much it cost and he said, “800 Euros”. Luckily only my mouth dropped as I swiftly, but carefully returned the vase to its place.

The flea market continued right into the city centre and I followed it like a fool using it as some kind of guide. My phone had told me that it was 100% going to rain all day, and since I had only an unreliable rain jacket, I set out to find an umbrella while it was still dry. I found myself in the market square and off in the corner I saw a stand with 6 or so umbrellas hanging on it. I meandered over and hovered around the umbrellas. I saw that they were all pretty worn and covered in some unknown brown, sticky substance. But one was perfect. A great green umbrella with a wooden handle. An anciently-old looking man in a wool sweater hobbled over and with a crooked raised index finger said, “One euro”.  I paid and said it was smart of him to have umbrellas for sale on a day when it was going to rain. He said that when you’ve been doing this as long as he has, you know what you’re doing. We talked for a while. His name was Lars and he had friendly eyes. I walked away with probably the best purchase of my life.

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                                     Here you get to see Lars, though not in his full glory

I walked further into the city centre and found one beautiful gothic medieval building after the other. I found a bombastic church and headed inside. At this point I had totally forgotten that it was a Sunday. I sat down in the congregation and the service began. I sat and let myself be comforted by the sounds and the songs. It was a flemish catholic mass, but it felt right. I don’t know, there’s something about giant European churches that draw me to them. I think I look at them with so much historical theological negativity that I feel like I can be in them and with them in their hypocrisy. In a twisted way I love them as a symbol of obvious human failure. And despite how they were built, they are undeniably impressive.

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View from the Belfry Tower

Anyway, I’m sitting in mass, minding my own when a woman taps me on the shoulder and asks something in flemish. I ask her to repeat it, as though I would understand it the second time (idiot), before asking for english. She asks if I’ll help carry the bread for the eucharist to the priest. I snap into celiac mode right away, “I can’t eat it!” She says I just need to carry it to the front. I shrug my shoulders and say, “why not.” And before I know it I, the gluten free mennonite, am carrying the glutenous Body of Christ to the front of this catholic church. The priest smiles and bowing, winks at me as he takes the bread and I return to my seat. I can’t help but feel that he knows.

After the service the woman who initially tapped me, tells me that her brother worked as a professor at McGill for many years. Somehow through this fact she feels we’re connected. Hey, whatever gets your communion served, eh?

Following this experience with my fellow believers, I  took part in a free walking tour of Bruges in the pouring rain with my trusty umbrella. I christened it “Lars”. I found it amusing how grumpy tourists get when the weather is bad. I quite enjoyed the cozy rain and the fact that fewer people were around. The city is apparently quite the attraction and I think if there would have been more people I would have hated it. It has been preserved and restored to be a perfect medieval city. It seems too perfect, almost fake. But somehow on my own in the rain with Lars it was surreal.

The rest of my trip proceeded in a similar fashion. I met some Canadians and had lunch with them. And I met some Americans posing as Canadians; I didn’t have lunch with them.

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Bruges when its not raining, taken by Americans posing as Canadians

It was the perfect indulgence before the transition that lies ahead of me. I thought I’d be lonesome on my own in a new city but it was so good. It was a time where I just needed to be for me. I sat in a cafe and journaled for once and made decisions that were only mine and sometimes made no decisions at all and just let my feet lead me as though they had a mind of their own. What a luxury.

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My lunch view in Ghent

How’s the Art going?

My time on the farm has come to an end. For ten weeks I got up at 6 in the morning, biked to work and spent the day with the same bizarre random group of people and then on last Friday, I just biked away, as quickly as I came and it was all over.

I think if I was asked to reflect on my time at Gut Eckendorf, the thing that would stick out most would be language. I have grown to be fascinated by different languages, and specifically how there are similar but intricately different phrases and ways of describing or seeing things in other languages. I’ve learned that language is the most important thing that allows us get to know one another, and express ourselves. It is our communication for everything, and you definitely get into a bind when you can’t communicate.

Entering into work relationships with people the speak many different languages presented an opportunity for me to broaden the way I see the world and the way I present myself in it. The characters that I worked with were mostly migrant workers who had little or no german. Most of them could communicate in english, but I encouraged them to speak their languages, so that I could hear and mimic what they were saying. When they would apologize that their english was not good, I didn’t understand. They all have at least 3 languages, and if their english is bad, it’s still a whole of lot better than my polish, or romanian. I admire people with accents because it means they’ve worked hard to learn a new language and it automatically means they know more languages than I do, so who am I to criticize them? I think it’s incredibly unfair that the whole world is expected to speak english and that we as english speakers don’t feel pressure to learn another language. I think we’re missing out on a whole new way of experiencing life.

Whenever I met someone that spoke a new language, I asked them how they say ‘shit’ in their language. I’ve always liked cuss words. There’s something about them that breaks the ice and bonds strangers together. It always worked this summer. I would meet someone new, ask their name, where they were from and how to say shit in their language.  Welcome to “How to make friends, 101”. Besides that, when you’re learning a new language and you screw up, at least you can cuss in the language that you’re struggling to learn. It also always gets a chuckle (and honestly, if it doesn’t, you’re probably better off without that person).

I spent most of my time with a group of Polish people that quickly became good friends. They taught me a little bit of polish (which is so difficult), and I realized that there are similar sayings to english that are ever so slightly different and therefore unique. Like for example we say “that’s a piece of cake”. They say, literally translated, “that’s bread with butter”. Huh.

A polish friend of mine was telling a story and there was a part he couldn’t remember. He said, “that’s where my mind stopped recording”, as though it were a movie. I laughed – this is genius! They told me that that would be the literal translation from polish. Apparently in Polish, they talk about memory in film terms. What a cool thing.

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Me and my polish friends 

But the linguistic nuances aren’t only cool, they can also have a pretty important effect.

A while back, probably around 3 weeks in, the excitement of working on the field in extreme heat had begun to wear off, I cam home and said hello with a noticeable sigh. My aunt said, “Na, was macht die Kunst?” Translated, this means something like, “how’s the art going?

“What art?”, I asked. I don’t do art. She explained that it’s a common way in german of asking how it’s going, or how life is. I think that’s just a pretty picture, to see life as a piece of art that you are painting away at (yes, I know, brace yourselves). This image ( I warned you), has stayed with me for the whole summer. Everyday I add on to the artwork of my life and each experience makes up a part of the picture.

I’m curious what part of my painting this summer will be. I will miss the feeling of going to bed satisfied after a hard day of work and sleeping well, because my body needs sleep. I tasted some of the best, most refreshing water of my entire life on those hot days on the field. I learned that a cloud is a reason to rejoice and do a dance (albeit slow dance to conserve energy). Throughout my life people have sometimes called me ‘Claudi’, as a nick name, and when I introduce myself to english-speakers I tell them that it’s, “Claudia, like the clouds in the sky”. It used to bug me that people might think of clouds when they hear my name, but after this summer I have no issue being associated with something that can bring so much joy and relief, never mind that they make pictures in the sky.

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The view never gets old

I was skyping with a friend the other day and we were reflecting on why people do the things they do. I guess I was having a little trouble finding the meaning and purpose in sitting at a machine all day at work, and also maybe questioning big picture stuff (booya) like why I was even in Germany in the first place. This has become a bit of a what the polish call “river topic”. It goes on and on for me. Much of the rest of this year is a giant question mark, but I know it will all work out. It always does one way or another.

Right now, I don’t know where I’ll be living in 10 days. And that’s okay. Because of this summer, I know that it’s a beautiful part of my Art. How’s your Art going?

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Fun times chopping up the enemy with international friends

 

 

May contain traces of Seed Sowing

By this point the phrase, ‘May contain traces of gluten’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Traces are everywhere. They’re in my shoes and in my pockets and in my hair and on my floor. Everywhere but in my small intestine, so we’re all good. Keep your enemies close, right? Isn’t there a saying like that?

Anyway, the harvest is over and now I get to spend 9 hours a day processing what I just spent 4 weeks harvesting. This week I picked apart and cleaned barley seeds by hand for the whole day, everyday. Its the same three actions repeated 345 million times; I swear that’s a modest exaggeration.

The morning usually goes by pretty quickly, but I always hit a slump after lunch between 1 and 2:30, where I have a full on existential, “What are you doing here? Why are you here? This can’t be worth it!” time.

I call it my mid-day crisis.

On Tuesday it was 37 degrees and we were inside, but on the third floor without ventilation and I was seriously concerned that my body would soon cease sweating and I would surpass the ability to cool down. In that moment I thought, “Why are you here? This can’t be worth it! Have you ever been this hot before?” (hehe) That last one though…when have I been this hot? I thought about it.

Kilometer 81 and my time in Paraguay came to mind and maybe some intense summer days at camp. As I reflected on the beads of sweat dripping onto the freshly cleaned sheets I was putting on hotel room beds back in Paraguay, I compared the motives between the work at Km 81 and the work here at Gut Eckendorf.  At Km 81 I made the equivalent of $20 a month and we all know no one works at camp to earn money. In both situations I was earning significantly less money than now. I was voluntarily sacrificing my comfort and safety because I found meaning in my work and was there for a larger purpose. What is the meaning at Gut Eckendorf, when I’m sorting through seeds that will most likely be weighed and then end up in the trash?

My siblings and I sometimes joke that we were not raised to make money. The children of a chaplain and a nursery school teacher, we seem groomed to care for people and to seek meaningful interactions in our day-to-day. I often wonder how we, generally as a society,  arrive at the sums for salaries paid to different jobs. How do we go about monetizing life? I know I most often care about and find joy in things that aren’t monetized. In fact, it often feels like monetizing them would reduce their value.

And yet, everything costs money.  I mean everything – like even going to the bathroom in Germany. (Don’t get me started on this trend of charging to use the bathroom. Relieving oneself is a time-sensitive basic human need. What’s next? Charging to breathe? ). This, amongst other things like rent,  is why we work. But back to the meaning…

The meaning I have sought and found at Gut Eckendorf is in the conversations and contact with international colleagues. I have been given a rare chance to see the world, at least partly, from their point of view. Mostly from Romonia, Poland, Macedonia and Latvia, the employees live in housing on company property provided for by Gut Eckendorf and work as many hours as possible. Their only goal is to make as much money as possible, because as they have told me, they cannot find adequate work to survive in their home countries. Legally, they are only allowed to work 60 hours a week and they are unhappy if they don’t fill that maximum. While I am saddened by their situations and amazed by their ongoing positivity, I can fathom why they put themselves through this. Circumstances permit them from enjoying a balanced work to home-life ratio and they have no other options.

Once in a while, a feeling of unfairness sneaks up on me. I catch myself thinking, “I work faster than they do. They work slowly so that they can get paid for over time, but if I get the work done in regular hours, I should get paid what they do and go home on time.” I immediately reign myself in though, and am reminded that nothing about the corruption in Romania is fair. Nothing about the wages they earn in Latvia is fair. They have every right in my mind to work at a moderate pace with breaks and they deserve every penny of the low wage they receive at Gut Eckendorf. It is all perspective.

What I find more difficult to understand is why german employees that live here and have their entire families and social circles here, work that much as well. The other day I was eating my lunch with some german employees. I had a piece of a zucchini loaf that I had baked and I was eating plums and figs from the fruit trees in my relatives back yard. My lunchtime companions were amazed that I had had time to bake a zucchini loaf and couldn’t believe that my relatives had a large garden which had, at this point, seemingly endlessly replenishing delicacies of zucchini, figs, plums, apples, tomatoes, potatoes etc. etc. etc.

Far too often, I hear this conversation. “I don’t know when I’ll have time to go grocery shopping. By the time I’m done work all the stores are closed”, or “I’m too exhausted to cook. When I got home at nine’o’clock last night I just ate ice cream and then went to bed.”

And yet, everyday when I deny the offer of ‘over hours’ (this is the literal german translation that is used exclusively in a thick german accent), and leave promptly at 4:45 after a 9 hour work day and 45 minutes of unpaid break, I get the stink-eye. They don’t understand why I don’t work more. I don’t understand why they do. We are mutually confused at one another.

On the one hand I see that it is an enormous privilege to be able to not depend on every hour and by extension, euro. I also know that I am here for other reasons, such as to spend time with extended family and get to know other aspects of life in Germany. On the other hand though, I wonder if it is not so much a privilege, but a different set of priorities. Yes, I could use the money I would make if I worked more well, but I think what I do in my time off is worth more than what I would make.

In the room where I sort the seeds, there is also a seed sorting machine that is so loud it discourages any conversation .To drown that noise out, my colleagues like to blare the pop hits featured on “Eins Live” (pronounced ‘Eins Life’ which makes me think ‘One Life’, or ‘Life first’ every time I hear it). From time to time I like to drown those layers of unrest out with a podcast.

The other day I fittingly tuned in to a podcast discussing the possibility and potential effect of a minimum income. If you’ve never heard of this before, it is a proposed social right that every citizen of a country would get a basic minimum income – no strings attached. While this is often dismissed as utopian and in support of laziness, I couldn’t help but see the benefits that a system like that would have for me, never mind my colleagues and friends from all over Europe. What if none of us had to work to survive? What if we measured success not in monetary terms, but in well-being? What if we could do things because WE WANTED to do them. Would we want to do things? What would you do with your time? Would you feel free to donate your time and effort to meaningful things that you’ve dismissed because they don’t ‘pay the bills’? Think arts, think caring for parents or children, think social services and volunteering. Hell, I’m thinking I would do a whole lot more writing. And I wouldn’t think twice about working at camp.

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As I sort the seeds, I know that they will land in the garbage. This particular genotype of speed barley has run its course and has proven to be not fruitful enough to pursue as a marketable, profitable species. This project has already been discarded, but the work of recording it has to be done. I am reminded of the all too common analogy of planting the seeds of an idea in the hopes that it might throw down some roots and one day grow into a solid tree. This genotype has been carefully bred and countless hours have been given to it by workers such as myself. The company has invested substantial funding, and now we know that this seed is not effective and will never grow into a solid, reliable crop. Gut Eckendorf specializes in trying to give as many seeds a chance as possible. What if we let ideas that seem like little fickle seeds have a chance to grow into solid, reliable trees? Call me crazy but I think then we might just have things like a minimum income where folks don’t neglect their lives in pursuit of money so that they might have a life. ‘Eins life’, am I right?

 

 

 

Those are Mennonites

I’ve now completed three weeks at my summer job at Gut Eckendorf and I can confidently say it’s not getting any less interesting. This week, five 16 year old students on summer vacation joined our team for a two week stint. Those five though, quickly dropped to 3 after the first day.

One boy couldn’t believe the way we worked in that heat and after I told him that we worked in the rain as well he said, “I’m never coming back!” And he hasn’t been back.

Another boy cut himself with a sickle on the second day and had to get stitches. I don’t think he’s coming back.

The other three are pretty great. When I heard that one is named Amelie I asked her if she knew the film The Wonderful World of Amelie. She responded that her parents named her after that movie. I felt old.

On Thursday,  I got to spend the day with Fatma. We bonded over our shared joy and then subsequent defeat when we finished sickleing an entire field only to be directly carted to another huge untouched field ready to be sickled. Great. We had to harvest individual wheat plants and put them into bags. I worked the sickle and she held the bags, so we spent nine hours together and got into some good conversations.

I asked her about her family and told her about mine. Another co-worker remarked that she didn’t have any siblings and wished she had a big family. We got to talking about big families and Fatma said that even though she only has two siblings there are always tons of kids around because there are many big families in the area where she lives. Apparently her neighbours to the left have 12 kids and the neighbours to the right have 9 and then the ones across the street have 6. I found that a little unusual and asked what the deal was. She answered that it is because of religious reasons. I asked what religion.

She leaned in, looked around to see if anyone was listening in, and in a hushed tone, said, “those are Mennonites.”

“Ha!” I burst into a giggle and said, “I’m one!”

You should have seen the look of disbelief on her face. “But you don’t look like one. Or act like one”, she responded. “Mennonites aren’t allowed to watch tv!”

What followed was a fascinating conversation on differences and extremes. I explained to her that there is a wide range of what is considered Mennonite and that she could rest assured that I was allowed to watch tv. And obviously I wore pants and had short unbraided hair as was evident. I assured her, that although we might be working on the field in the fashion of old order Mennonites with sickles in hand, that was the closest I got to being her idea of Mennonite.

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Then I heard myself say that I was not even really a Mennonite. In that moment the association with that extreme version of Mennonite was enough to scare me from identifying as one at all. I said something about coming from Mennonites but having drastically changed the theology and the practice. I didn’t want to come on too strong and religion hadn’t come up before.

This is where Fatma surprised me.

Fatma herself grew up Muslim and openly spoke of the extremes we all think of when we hear the word. She said that it is important to her that people know other Muslims that are just normal folks that find purpose and hope for their lives through Islam. She even recited a Turkish saying that translates to “everything in moderation”, that her mother often says.  I wish you could hear it in the original Turkish because the pronunciation carried a weight that made me know it was truthful wisdom. What she said was that radical extremism is never good and that one must always be open to understand the other persons point of view.

That day, I learned from a sixteen year old Muslim to unashamedly own and defend my branch of christianity or more specifically my Mennonite-ness. She didn’t shy away from what her religion was and how she practices for fear of being clumped in with extremists. And I was able to dive into some Mennonite history and explain some of the differences that occurred there and try and clear up the idea that all Mennonites are the Mennonites she knows.

I think that I sometimes forget to own my religion. The intense fear of ‘coming on too strong’, or inadvertently being perceived as an ‘in your face’ evangelist’, tends to paralyze my ability to represent or even acknowledge a religion that has deeply shaped me and is still important to me.  Fatma was an example of a person that doesn’t represent the stereotype, but openly represented and acknowledged her reality that in turn informed my view of Islam and might continue to change the stereotype. I am an example of someone that doesn’t represent the stereotype, but didn’t, at least at first, openly try to show that. By denying my Mennonite-ness I preserved the stereotype and missed the opportunity to change Fatma’s perception of Mennonites.

We left the field that day good friends that had successfully tackled a historically divisive subject. We agreed that the perpetual need to be right has caused a lot of deeply irreligious things to occur in history. Often the underlying point of religion is to provide purpose, meaning and hope in life. She told me that if I find those things being a Mennonite it was fine by her. I told her that if she found those things being a Muslim, it was fine by me.