Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I laughed. I cried. It was better than Cats.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is one of the funniest and wisest books that I’ve read in a long, long time. Rhoda Janzen is simply hilariously funny. I have rarely laughed out loud as often during a book as I did with this one. At the same time, Rhoda is almost blindingly intelligent (I haven’t looked up this many words since The Geography of Love), achingly full of empathy, and hugely self-aware, but in a not-at-all-arrogant way.

Rhoda’s tough year spent recovering from botched surgery with a catheter and a urine bag strapped to her leg was just the prelude to the really, really bad week that kicks off the action of her memoir. Her husband of 15 tumultuous years leaves her for a man (Bob) that he met on, and she is in a car accident that leaves her with serious injuries. In response to these world-shattering events, Rhoda moves home to California and moves in with her Mennonite parents.

I think my favorite thing about Rhoda’s memoir is the delicate way she points out the incongruities and hilarities of the religious community of her childhood while also clearly honoring them. There is no disrespect in her descriptions, which is quite a feat given how much humor she finds. The tales of her mother’s uncanny and unselfconscious public bodily commentary and the detailed descriptions of the peculiarities of traditional Mennonite food are downright hysterical. And yet these – and so many more laugh-out-loud stories – are told in a loving, respectful way.

Rhoda’s stories of her interval at home are interwoven with reflections and memories from her childhood. Her family is full of characters both entertaining and endearing; I particularly loved her steady, serene, practical sister, Hannah. The shorthand the sisters share, full of private references and the deep intimacy of a common and unique childhood, reminds me of the way that Hilary can say to me, eyebrow cocked, “ADC? Q Kamir? The Happy Hallwegers?” and make me burst instantly into the laughter of keen recognition.

I can’t recommend Mennonite in a Little Black Dress enough. Rhoda’s voice alone is reason to start this book. Tonight. I absolutely adored spending time with her. I want to be her friend! The memoir is also deeply moving. It is a testament to the strength of Rhoda’s spirit that she overcomes crises that would crush the average person with both her sense of humor and steadfast faith in the essential good of the world intact. As she sinks into the comfort of her family’s embrace, realizing the ways that her life has irrevocably ruptured, Rhoda opens to an awareness of the great unknown of the universe. This is, of course, a universal experience, I think, and one for tales of which which most of us have a huge appetite. Only a masterful writer, thinker, and person like Rhoda Janzen can have me laughing uproariously on one page and on the very next reduce me to tears with sentences like this:

…I suddenly felt destiny as a mighty and perplexing force, an inexorable current that sweeps us off into new channels… And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nest outside my study window. I had watched the lake winds swinging and tipping it, expecting it to go down, but it never did. Memory swayed like that next – hidden but present, fragile yet strong, attached by an unseen force to perpetual motion.

I loved Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I will be hearing Rhoda’s keen observations, shot through with her trademark humility and intelligence, in my head for a very long time. Her memoir is a rare thing: a book that really makes you laugh and that really makes you think at the same time.

The Geography of Love

I read Glenda Burgess’s exquisite memoir, The Geography of Love a couple of weeks ago, reading it voraciously in two sittings, unable to put the beautiful volume down.  Glenda makes me believe in soul mates.

Given my own fixation with maps and geography, with all the tools that we use, concrete and ineffable, to guide our way through life, I was predisposed to love this book. I did not, however, expect the completeness with which I’d tumble into Glenda’s world, that I’d be so completely seduced by her voice. She knocked me over twice in her first chapter alone, first with “And while the question of God himself frames the universe, the great mysteries exist in the human heart unsolved,” which echoes my growing awareness that beyond the questions there are more questions. And her description of her life before meeting her husband is a far more eloquent and lyrical summary of exactly what it is I write about so clumsily, all the time:

Eventually, I constructed a layered exoskeleton, a coral reef instead of a life. The structure was there, but the essence was missing.

It is a rare book that sends me to the dictionary almost once a chapter. An even rarer one that does so in an elegant, unforced way. This book did both. Glenda’s prose is never showy or flamboyant. It is simply elegant, intelligent, and full of metaphors that seem to spring from a deep intuition.

The Geography of Love is, most of all, a love story. Glenda describes falling in love with Ken, and taking a chance on a life together despite some red flags in his history that might send a more cautious woman running (twice widowed, he was a suspect in his second wife’s murder). Her narrative is interspersed with reflections on faith, meaning, and the soul. There are many sentences that made my breath catch in my throat, sentences that glitter like gems, that put into the perfect words, in the perfect order, things deep in my heart. For example: “How do you know a heart? The life only tells the journey.”

The story that Glenda tells of her life with Ken and their two children is evocative and personal. The bulk of the book traces Ken’s illness with cancer, his deteriorating health and their movement as a family towards his death. Glenda seems certain that Ken is her destiny, that her path was always meant to lead to him (“In every way, he was my true home, my center of gravity.”) At the same time, she evinces raw reverence in the face of life’s great mystery, circles around the essential unknown at the heart of the human experience. In her very first chapter, those five pages that are as beautiful as any prose I’ve read in a long time, she talks about “quintessence: the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form … Quintessence, like faith, remains unproven: a deductive belief.” Certainty and the unknown, tangled inextricably together.

Interleaved into this story of an ordinary life and an uncommonly strong love are Glenda’s reflections on the great currents of feeling and belief that I think run through all of us. She accomplishes what is surely the highest aspiration of memoir: taking a deeply personal story and telling it in a way that examines and explicates universal emotions and experiences.

The scene of Ken’s death, which happens at home and in Glenda’s presence, is among the most powerful I’ve ever read. She writes of watching – feeling – his soul leave his body. She is suffused with grace as she sits with the body of the man who has become the geography of her life, of her love. Her courage and humanity in sharing this scene, this most private of moments, awes me. The book ends with Glenda moving towards the “formal feeling” that Emily Dickinson said came after great pain. Even in her grief, she continues to respect the forces beyond our control and understanding that shape our lives, and her gratitude for what she shared with Ken clearly overwhelms the pain of her loss.

This is a gorgeous, lucid, moving book. It is sad but also profoundly hopeful. For me, the most enduring of Glenda’s messages is that in abandoning ourselves to – even embracing – all that we cannot know, we may find peace and comfort. The Geography of Love is the story of two human beings, whole and flawed and full of love, and of the path they walked together. It hints at the path that lies ahead for the one who survives, and, even, at the path ahead for the one that dies.

Life distills in the elements of chaos and chance. Vagary, arcane and capricious, hints at destiny and confounds God, adumbrates the fragile human landscape.