For the first thirteen years of my life, I called Winnipeg, Manitoba home. Obviously I don’t remember the first few years of city life, but I do know that for my newlywed parents—who had grown up around the small community of Altona, Manitoba—Winnipeg held the promise of a stable future. However, breaking the urban soil, making a living, and putting down roots with a growing family was not an easy task.
During my formative years, I grew to dread springtime. A carpenter by trade, my dad would get what I called “spring fever.” Every year, at least so it seemed, he would become restless as the winter melted from his memory. Then the hunt began for a house to renovate, or the purchase of a lot on which to build a new house. This invariably meant that we were on the move—again.
112 Colony Street
1202 St. Mary’s Road
73 Arden Avenue
152 Parkville Drive
111 Minnetonka Street
8 Millfield Drive
115 Woodlawn Avenue
35 Riverbend Avenue
Eight addresses in thirteen years; the first two are now buried under pavement. The third home—a charming little house from which my earliest memories spring—was torn down sometime after we moved away; now a much larger house stands in its place under the tall oak trees. The economic downturn of the 1970s prompted the ninth move, this time beyond the city perimeter to Morden, Manitoba.
Attending school was another story. I soon discovered that my vocabulary included words that were alien to others, and vice versa; Low German words trespassed in English sentences. Embarrassed, my tongue tangled in knots. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a privilege to know two languages, as well as to experience two very different ways of living: the country and the city.
Our family took monthly trips to visit my grandparents in the country. During summer holidays, I often spent a week or two on the farm, west of Altona; I learned to milk a cow by hand and gather eggs from the chicken coop. There was an outhouse in the back yard and the “cash-n-carry” in the dank basement. My grandmother used a pump to draw water into the kitchen—the farmhouse was very different from our city home. Living in the suburb of St. Vital, we had running water, the corner convenience store, and kids nearby to play with. After a bad snow storm one winter, I remember my dad shoveled through snow drifts and walked to the corner store to buy milk for my baby brother. Our diverse neighbourhood introduced me to a variety of playmates and customs; none of them were from a Mennonite background. Next door lived a Catholic Italian family; one of the girls I played with had Down syndrome.
Moving from one school to another, I felt like an outsider; friendships were difficult to cultivate. However, attending a city school did foster an appreciation for diversity and creativity. And I suppose living peaceably and befriending the displaced were ways I practised being Mennonite. In grade six, once a week for Home Economics class, a group of us girls (only girls took Home Ec. at the time) rode city buses to and from Minnetonka Elementary School and Glenlawn Collegiate without adult supervision! One day, while waiting for a bus, a classmate asked if I wanted a cigarette. I might have stumbled into saying yes, but before I could answer, another girl interjected, “She doesn’t smoke.” I never did smoke, but I did buy packs of candy cigarettes (Popeye brand) from the corner store.
In the midst of all the moves and the financial strain, faith remained grounded; we never stopped attending Sunday school and church services. I loved to sing in church—that love still thrives. At some point, our family was one of a group of people who helped plant a new church in another part of the city. Both of these Mennonite faith communities broke new ground, found ways to welcome strangers, and planted seeds that blossomed into organizations such as Winnipeg Harvest and The Barnabas House.
I imagined that one day I would get married, settle down in one place, and raise a family. How naïve! I did get married, but I was on the move again for the sake of my husband’s education. As a young mom, we lived in Denver, Colorado for a year—grocery stores did not stock farmer sausage, and people confused Mennonites with the Amish. Unlike Winnipeg, being a Mennonite seemed to be an anomaly. It was curiously liberating to be in the minority. A few years later, we lived in Waco, Texas with our three young children—home was a tiny white house we shared with cockroaches. There was a woman down the street who had lived in Waco most of her life. One day she warned me not to let my daughter play with the neighbour girl—a child from African and Spanish backgrounds. These experiences living in urban centres forced me to evaluate my own prejudice and tolerance of diversity.
In 1995, we finally settled in the city of Steinbach, my twenty-first home, though the word “settled” is a misnomer. Some time ago, restless like my father (a Mennonite gene?), I ventured into new territory. Steinbach, despite its reputation for being narrow-minded, opened my eyes to new possibilities. The elementary school “dummy” risked breaking new ground and returned to the classroom. Opportunities followed me through Steinbach Bible College and the University of Manitoba. Who would have thought that I would be writing my PhD dissertation on the poetry of prairie women writers? Some people have wondered why a middle-aged Mennonite woman would want to go back to school at this stage in life. Others have worried whether a university education would result in arrogance or spiritual decay. It is true that studying has challenged me to think more critically, but that is a good thing. I’ve become more confident in what I believe and why, and have gained a more spacious view of the world. Being a Mennonite and a mature student on campus has also had its advantages: stimulating conversations, diverse friendships, and supportive mentors. The journey has not been easy, but I have enjoyed the process. After thousands of pages of reading, hundreds of papers, and countless miles travelling between two cities, the hard work, determination, and cheerleaders along the way have opened new avenues for teaching and creative writing.
The writing community in Manitoba, and across the country, is vibrant and generative. Winnipeg has been a breeding ground not only for Canadian geese, but many excellent Mennonite writers. A couple of years ago, when attending a literary event at McNally Robinson with some of my Canadian Literature students, I had the privilege of introducing them to Robert Kroetsch. During our conversation, he told me that this was a great time to be a Mennonite writer. The growing body of Mennonite literary texts is testimony to the pioneering work of writers such as Rudy Wiebe, Patrick Friesen, Sandra Birdsell, Di Brandt, Miriam Toews, Sarah Klassen, David Bergen, and Dora Dueck, just to name a few. Hildi Froese Tiessen once observed that numerous first-generation Canadian English-speaking Mennonite writers have come from Winnipeg; many have also moved on to other cities, telling their stories in other contexts. Mennonite writers, or writers from a Mennonite background, continue to receive acclaim nationally and internationally. It is a privilege to be connected with such a remarkable and diverse group of people.
The urban landscape is a rich and dynamic milieu where people from diverse cultural backgrounds and languages intersect. It is a place of tension, where ideas are shared and challenged. This unsettles us, relocates our thinking, and renovates our vision. Differences also illuminate and generate seeds that grow into novels and poems and music and all forms of creative expression. This is good news. Mennonites are breaking the boundaries, breaking the silence, breaking injustices, breaking into new fields enriched with peace and reconciliation and innovation.
It’s really no surprise that Mennonites have broken ground and moved from the country and small towns to the cities. Even the Biblical narrative moves from the extravagant garden to an astonishing city. Certainly there are those who have looked at resettling in cities unfavourably, perhaps influenced by true-to-life stories like the prodigal son wasting his cash and career. Still, there are many Mennonites who have relocated in cities and become urban pioneers, breaking expectations as they cultivate diverse and innovative professions. I admit I prefer living in a place where Mennonites are a minority, and engaging with others along the margins of possibility—in the city and un/settled.
The launch of Luann’s first poetry collection, What Lies Behind (Turnstone Press), takes place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 23 at McNally Robinson. Her poems have also appeared in Rhubarb.