Katie Funk Wiebe Writing Center dedication talk Oct 21, 2017

Katie at 19

Katie at 19: I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.

 

People often asked our mother the same set of questions: How do you find time to write? Where do you get your ideas? How do you handle the flak? How did you come to be a writer, as a Mennonite Brethren woman, anyway? What keeps you going?

So, I’ll answer those questions.

Katie made time to write.

Her ideas grew from her own experiences, big and small. She also told the stories of other women, often those overlooked by history.

About criticism, Katie said, “When I get a harsh letter, I feel like a virtuous persecuted martyr of the early centuries. I lie down and bleed a while…But then I get up again and write some more.”

How did she come to be a writer? Before her, the Funk women didn’t write. Her mother Anna hardly wrote even a scrap of a letter. Yet she read. For example, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, Grandma read and discussed it with Katie. But her dreams for Katie did not include writing. “Writing?” Katie wrote later. “No one wrote for a living.”

At 19, Katie wrote in her journal, “I’m afraid to be a writer…No one will ever see these things I write.”

Growing up in the Mennonite Brethren church she heard “powerful voices calling me to a life of faith.” Yet she also heard a call to the world of the imagination, a call to writing, a call she never heard inside the church.

“To reconcile the two sets of voices – the one to a life of faith in Christ, the other to creative exploration, seemed impossible.”

She met our father, Walter, at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, where they worked together on the school newspaper. Sparks flew.

“The first years of our marriage,” she wrote later, “Walter and I spent many hours sorting through what God wanted of us. One day we knelt beside our kitchen table and committed our lives to a literature ministry.”

Almost immediately Walter got a chance to write a newsletter for the Youth Committee of the Canadian Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Church. Katie had a baby; she cooked and sewed, she copied the newsletter on a mimeograph machine, and stuffed the envelopes. When Walter got too busy to do the writing, Katie hauled out her college typewriter. After five years, Katie was writing the whole newsletter.

In 1962, the editor of the Christian Leader, asked Walter if Katie would write a column, “Women in the Church.” The column name later became “Viewpoint” when Katie persuaded her editors that she had something to say to both women and men.  She wrote the column for 30 years.

As she began to publish, she was encouraged by her parents, her husband, and children.  Her mother told her, “…keep on writing and do not let critical strong letters upset you. People on the front have to face it. Sleep over it.”  Katie gained many fans.

Her first widely-read book was Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy.

In her lifetime, Katie wrote more than two thousand articles, columns and book reviews, and wrote or edited more than two dozen books. In 2011, she began a blog.

As Katie neared 90, though her eyesight was failing, she was working on four books. Three are already out, and soon we’ll see her translation of the book Terror, Faith and Relief: The Famine in Russia, to be published by the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In 2000 The Mennonite chose her as one of twenty Mennonites with “the most powerful influence on life and belief of the General Conference Mennonite Church in the 20th century, by raising the credibility of Mennonite writing and giving voice to widowhood and women’s concerns.”

When people would ask what kept her going, she often said wryly that it was less agonizing to write than not to write. She believed writing was God’s assignment to her. It wasn’t a hobby, it was a ministry. Writing was the way she explored her faith, by looking at the questions and mysteries of her own life. She got great satisfaction from working with words and ideas.  She loved thinking up her own ways of saying things, not falling back on religious jargon, which she said was one of the worst diseases in modern society.

She also kept writing because she was committed and disciplined. She said, “I have never seen myself as a particularly gifted writer, mostly as a hard worker.” She did not wait until the mood hit her but simply kept on writing even when feeling, in her words, “a terrible dryness”.   

Katie told everyone, “you have a story to tell.” She took great joy in teaching people how to write their own story in an original way so that it would be clear and interesting. “As a writer, you are always open to new insights, new perspectives to an idea, an argument, a way of seeing life, while hanging onto what is basic to faith. You are willing to trim the fat off your thinking and change your mind, if need be.  And I have about many things. The energy in writing comes when you attempt to focus your vision ever more clearly for yourself and others.”

Katie’s family is so pleased that Tabor College is dedicating this writing center where emerging writers can gain confidence, and find their own voice.  Because your stories matter.

 

 

Lapjchen

Again…I need to make shoes. Like people of the forests since time began, I’ll chop down three or four birch saplings.  I’ll need seven long strips of the inner fiber of the bark, the bast. I’ll weave them around a wooden block roughly the size of my feet.  It’s winter, so I’ll weave the shoes a bit wider, so I can wrap lots of strips of cloth around my feet, to keep them warm inside my new shoes. My lapjchen. This is a nice pair. I did a good job. I hope they last the week.

This pair of shoes, also called lapjchen, or lapti, was given to my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by my Great Aunt Neta, when mom visited her in Moscow in 1989. From 1945 to 1953, Aganeta Janzen Block and her four children worked in forced labor camps in Siberia. These were the type of shoes they made for themselves during this time. The shoes didn’t last long.
 

What is the taste of amniotic fluid?

1926, Saskatchewan, Canada: my grandmother Anna is on the right; her mother-in-law Susanna is in the middle

My red-haired grandmother Anna Janzen Funk was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of twelve children in a Mennonite Brethren family. The Mennonites were about 18 percent of a German minority of some two million in Russia.  She and my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1923, and the picture above was taken three years later.

When Anna had just turned 22, in early spring of 1918, she was working as a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. The Russian government had collapsed and now the Bolshevist regime was in power, attempting to transform revolutionary theory into soviet reality. Their army (the Reds) had taken over the area, seizing livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. The White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine. Also at this time, Russian peasants were vengefully confiscating the Mennonite farms, and, led by Nestor Makhno, participating in massacres against the Mennonites.

Anna’s family had disappeared.

Just a month ago, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male Bethania Mental Hospital patients. Now it was a Sunday morning, and the revolutionaries were back, warmly dressed, slurping soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked.

She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen.

When she opened the door, she was startled to see two dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River.

“Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?

The Reds were having their soup in the dining room at that very moment!

As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that their uniforms and boots were muddy from their scramble up the thawing banks of the Dnieper River.

There’s Anna on the back step at Bethania, the flour dusting her forehead, breath condensing into clouds, facing those hungry, rough young men. Perhaps one of them reminded her of one of her lost brothers. Whatever sparked it, in that moment, she took courage. She used what she had—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her disappeared family —and spoke.

Grinning, she scolded the White soldiers as if they were her brothers: “Boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”

Disarmed, they smiled and cleaned their boots. Anna quickly brought the trays of fresh bread into the Red group, eagerly encouraging them to fill their pockets for later, opened the front door for them and shooed them out. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

I have read that children in the womb can taste what their mother is eating. The food flavors the amniotic fluid. I imagine those days in 1924 when Anna carried my mother, she would have been eating borscht with sour cream, and many other delicious Russian recipes she brought with her to Canada.  But there was another flavor that Anna passed on to my mother — a taste for courage and creativity.

Second thoughts

Katie Funk Wiebe, my mom

Go over to  http://kfwiebe.blogspot.com and read my mom’s blog.  Here’s a little sample:

“In a used bookstore I picked up a copy of Frederich Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, a compilation of selections from his books arranged for daily reading. Sixty-five cents, the tag said. Why not? I have enjoyed Buechner’s books in the past, especially The Hungering Dark.

“His idea of good writing is to stick a pen into a vein and start writing. Passionate, life-giving writing is fueled by blood. I have sometimes told would-be writers to think of writing as wearing your heart on your sleeve for all to see what makes it tick.”

That’s what  I love about my mom.

Christmas 2010: A Season for Courage

Take courage to hold one another and be held

By Katie Funk Wiebe

As I held my new grandson in my arms, his dark eyes looked boldly into mine, seeing and yet not seeing. The year was 1979, the year of the Iranian crisis. Our Christmas celebration would be different this year because of this tiny newcomer. His life story had begun, we added a new chapter to ours.

People often relate their “best Christmas” or “most disappointing Christmas” stories as part of a festivity. Digging through the store of Christmas memories can be valuable, even when a person is celebrating alone, for through the backward journey we become familiar once again with the plot of our life story, the main characters, the conflict, and at which points in the action we allowed God’s grace to become part of the resolution. And, especially, make it part of the continuing pattern of life. Often at Christmas the year’s events come into full focus. Some memories gleam with a splendor that outmatches the starry heavens. One year was highlighted by joy, love, and laughter. Other seasons were scarred by hurt, failure and grief. Who hasn’t completed the required round of activities not feeling particularly spiritual, or even happy or sad? Christmas came and went like any other day, and left no mark. Its recall draws a blank on memory’s screen. What did happen that year?

What happened at Christmas isn’t as important as recalling how we dealt with the Christevent itself, year after year, and seeing the pattern of our attitudes toward it. Christmas began for me, during the Depression years, as it did for many children at the time, with high expectations of presents from impoverished parents. Gifts, small or large, were tangible symbols of love, and we children relished the season because it brought the excitement of surprises and rare treats of candy, an orange, and nuts.

One year I ruined our simple family celebration because the doll beside my plate on Christmas morning wasn’t as pretty as the one beside my sister’s plate. I fumed and fretted. After the holidays, my doll with its cotton body and hard composition head with a hole through which to tie a ribbon, was returned to the mail order firm for one with a china head, hair, and eyes that opened and closed. I got what I demanded, as well as the memory of a Christmas I wish I could forget.

After we teenagers started earning our own money, Christmas included the exquisite agony of buying gifts for others—as big as our small budgets could afford—but always with the hope they would look more expensive than they were. We sent out cards and counted the ones we received in return.

We approached the season with energy and enthusiasm, unencumbered by failures and disappointments. The season included rounds of programs, parties, singing of “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” and listening to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on the radio—activity of all kinds.

And then, gradually, over the years, Christmas became a time to draw close to persons rather than activities and things. Family members had moved or died. Gifts took second place. Christ’s love needed person-love to make it complete. One year, early in our marriage, when my student-husband and I were living in a tiny, one-room apartment with two small children, we faced one of our first away-from-home Christmases. The outlook looked as bleak as a blustery winter day in Winnipeg. Another young family, also restricted to the area, and we joined forces. My parents had sent a large turkey, which we roasted in the college cafeteria oven. We set up tables in the dormitory hall. Afterwards, the children ran shrieking through empty halls with abandon while we adults lingered over coffee and told ourselves we would always remember this shared money-less Christmas.

Over the years, the plot of one’s life story often moves in directions one never expects. I have found that Christmas is possible without all family members, but not without people. Christmas is possible without gifts, although a symbol of love brings joy. As I grow older, I understand Christmas is also possible without travel, programs, and banquets, but not without the hope there will be courage to continue loving. I agree with Madeleine L’Engel in The Irrational Season that the “Nativity is a time to take courage.” What good did the infinite God coming in the form of a finite child do? she asks. Human beings are still evil.

I look about me this Christmas 2010. We still do not have peace on earth of which the angels sang that first Christmas day. There are still wars and rumors of wars. People continue to murder and abuse to satisfy their own desires. Though the Bible is a best-seller, pornography and other trash has a strong following. Though interest in spirituality is increasing, people search endlessly for solutions to stress and change. Did Christ’s coming change anything? God came to earth as a human being to share our living and our dying, writes L’Engel.

That is an irrational act. The sovereign God in the form of a helpless baby doesn’t make sense in human terms. The price of God’s love was the pain of being human.

Christ came to share the life of this newborn nestled in my arms, I told myself, decades ago, as he looked about with the wondering eyes of a newborn. Christ came to share my life—the pain and joy of being human. He knows about it because he was Emmanuel—God with us. Christmas 2010 is the time to move ahead with courage because God knows us in our humanity. Because of Christ’s death, we can know him in his divinity. The message for this year is still Emmanuel—God with us because God loved us. Take courage to hold others in love—and be held.

Katie Funk Wiebe is my mother and this was her Christmas letter to us this year.

I wish many blessings to all my readers this holiday season! May you have courage and emotional resilience for the year ahead.

Christine is online!

A self portrait of Christine

Visit the CMW Journal today!  The October issue of the online magazine published by the Center for Mennonite Writing  in Goshen, Indiana, came out on Tuesday, thanks to a great labor of love by editor Ann Hostetler. The journal features a wonderful selection of Christine’s poems,  a biography  and bibliography by my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, an article by myself, and also great articles by friends Ellen Kroeker  of New Zealand and Jeff Gundy of Bluffton University. It also has an edited version of Chrstine’s book, How to Stay Alive, with its wonderful little sketches.

This publication means a great deal to my mother, for it gives Christine a lasting legacy.  Being online will mean many more readers will see Chrstine’s  poetry.

Take courage

Many of the letters written by Anna Janzen Funk to her daughter Katie, my mother,  contained the phrase, “Take courage.”

I have thought of that short phrase often: Take courage. What does that mean? Faced with a blank page, I will take courage and fill it with words.

OK, let’s get serious. What if I make a mistake? I’ve gathered materials about grandma’s life for years; yet I often struggle with getting the facts right!   Can I trust this process of writing?

My red-haired great-grandmother, Anna Janzen Funk, was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of 12 children of Franz J. Janzen (who also had red hair) and Katharina Boldt Janzen. Growing up in a well-developed Mennonite culture, Anna matured into a strong-willed, spiritual, intelligent person. She developed a hatred of crocheting, much preferring to read.  She did not have much time to read, however, as she began working seven days a week when she was 15. When she was 20, on a dark, rainy Sunday, she took the train about 90 miles to her second job. She was going to be a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. While she was at Bethania, in February 1917, the Russian government collapsed and the socialistic Bolshevist regime took power. Their army (the Reds) took over the area, taking livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. Anna’s family disappeared. The opposing White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine.

So, after that long setup, here’s the story about the importance of creativity, and how critical courage is in expressing creativity. One winter day, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male hospital patients. Now the revolutionaries were warmly dressed, slurping their soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked. She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen. When she opened the door, she was startled to see a couple of dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River. “Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?  The Reds were having their soup in the dining room!  As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that the Whites had added a lot of mud from the thawing banks to their uniforms and boots. Of course!  She grinned as she scolded them, “Please, boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”  Truly disarmed, they smiled back at the saucy young woman and began working on their boots. Anna brought the trays of bread into the Red group, encouraged them to fill their pockets for later, and opened the front door for them. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

Now that I’ve written the words, I know quite well that this is not exactly the way it happened. I have left things out—big things, like the Makhnovist bandits. I have made things up, like the dialog. But—I have steadfastly shuffled phrases and sentences like jigsaw puzzle pieces to achieve that moment when I am not only seeing a picture that feels true, I myself am standing beside Anna on the back step at Bethania, close enough to see the flour dusting her forehead, to hear her steady breathing as we stand in the sunlight, facing those hungry, rough young men. I watch with my entire self, to witness her in the very moment of taking courage. She uses what she has—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her lost brothers—and speaks. The ugliness of war transforms into a homely backyard scenario: big sister telling the boys to clean their boots before coming inside. Anna’s courageous creativity has brought life to the day.

Opportunities for life-giving creativity occur daily. Filling a page with words is good practice.

Joanna Wiebe, May 1, 2007