No Menno

Dear players of the Mennonite Name Game,

I’ll just come out and say it: I’m not Mennonite. I didn’t become one when I married a person with a Menno name – someone who grew up calling himself German because, as some of you know, Mennonite heritage can be a painful thing. And I’m 99 percent sure that, although I do know a lot of Mennonites, I don’t know the Unraus you’re thinking of who live near you, or who used to. I hope you can see that it wouldn’t be worth asking me about this—and that trying to play the name game with my kids would win you two blank stares.

It wasn’t until I became an honorary Unrau that I realized what it is to have an ethnic name; the surname I grew up with, Dennis, is beautifully anonymous. (I am a descendent, on my father’s side, of an immigrant violin-maker who changed his name so people would stop discriminating against him. The old name, even though it was only a couple of generations ago, is forgotten in family lore, but that’s another story.) It’s surprising how much people assume about you, for better and worse, based on a name. Tiny insights like this into the judgments we make of one another give me glimpses of how vile and unfair it is to be discriminated against, how random and unfounded.

But I owe a lot to the Mennonites. I grew up among the Menno kids in North Kildonan, Winnipeg, where even in our charismatic, non-denominational church there were plenty of Mennonite last names. I attended a Mennonite college at the University of Winnipeg and went, after first year, on a one-year Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) service term.

It was from the Mennos who made up the team I worked with in Cambodia that I learned it’s possible to have progressive politics and still be a Christian. During that year, I abandoned my dream of becoming a missionary and embraced both feminism and pacifism. I learned peacemaking from the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Dhammayietra movement and attended my first peace walk among a stream of white and saffron robes near the ancient temple of Angkor Wat. I read Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

In my small room in a traditional house on stilts, I read late into the night while insects flew and crashed against the mosquito net, while the gecko croaked her gecko sound and the cows stamped under the house. I read the complete works of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, and anything else left on the bookshelves in Phnom Penh by the MCCers who had come before me.

That was the year I learned two things about myself that have shaped who I have become. With no electricity, no computer, and no TV to distract me, I discovered I love literature. With so much time for reflection—while pedalling my bike to work, riding for hours on the backs of motorcycle taxis, and lounging in the kitchen after supper with my host family—and with an assignment to keep a journal for the year, I discovered I love to write.

It was a natural introduction to the life of a poet. Fascinated by the Cambodian people and landscape, I adopted the posture a poet ought to take: open and aware, senses sharpened by curiosity. I wrote the smells of wet season, the shock of morning glories by the side of a muddy road, the nightmares riddled with scenes described by my friends and neighbours who had survived the Khmer Rouge years. I learned rhythm, repeating all along the bumpy road between Neak Luong and Mesang the lines of poems I wrote in my head.

I returned home and became an English student, then a writer and editor, and a peace and justice activist of sorts. I joined an intentional community made up of Mennos, Catholics and recovering Evangelicals like me. And I married the Unrau guy.

Maybe all poets struggle to find fulfilling work that still leaves time for writing. That’s been my challenge through the years of parenting young children, getting my MA, and now editing Geez. In a way, it doesn’t even matter whether I write poetry or not—it matters to have the time and the mindset to take that open posture and engage with the world. It matters to pause and watch the river flow under the bridge I jog across, to have a big idea to puzzle over to the beat of my foot-falls, to listen to the squeals of kids playing in the gym outside my office in an inner-city church, to hold a caterpillar and feel each of its feet tickle my palm. When I see, smell, and touch the world in this way, the poetry just comes.

And for the gift of knowing this, in part, I have to thank the Mennos.

– Melanie Dennis Unrau