Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Book Review--Entering the Wild
Give her parents credit--they gave her the option. When Jean Janzen was a sixth grader, she landed a part, a significant part, in the school play. But her Mennonite heritage warned against theater, so little Jean found herself in an unholy quandary. Her heart said she wanted the part; her head told her that the theater was not a place to be found when Christ would come again.
Tough stuff. Even though the school play was elementary and no more ribald than “Hansel and Gretal,” she determined she would not go on stage. “This was too much like the forbidden theater; I would be a brave soldier for Jesus and give it up,” she says in her memoir, Entering the Wild: Essays on Faith and Writing.
That childhood memory draws in the conflicts in this little book of meditations—for these essays are really meditations, even though they weren’t written for your or my rituals. They’re meditations because Jean Janzen, a Mennonite by pedigree and will, is what Roman Catholics might call a “religious,” even though she is not bound by monastic rules. Her tradition holds her, as does the God she worships, in its loving hand. And she holds it that way too.
Which is to say she doesn’t begrudge her Mennonite roots for keeping her from a starring roles in the school play. In Entering the Wild she offers some criticism of her tradition, but she doesn't stamp the Mennonite dust off her feet, doesn't even leave. What's unique about the memoir is that Janzen looks back and finds an abundant life of mystery in her distinct ethnic and religious roots.
Most of the essays detail the detective work she did on her family's past. Her father emigrated from Russia in 1909, left behind brothers and sisters who would suffer immensely, even die, at the hands of Stalin. Among the poignant stories Jean Janzen tells in this family chronicle of hers is what she's discovered about her grandmother’s suicide, an event her father never spoke of, an event she discovered only after his death.
There’s no anger in the memoir, just wonder and awe and mystery. That too makes the book devotional. Janzen’s several books of poetry--Snake in the Parsonage (1995), Tasting the Dust (2000), Piano in the Vineyard (2004) and Paper House (2008)—spread themselves over a similarly biographical landscape in a very similar way, by paying attention to things, to events, to human lives altogether too easy to miss. Our finest spiritual writers make life itself a sacrament. That's what Jean Janzen does.
Some of the most enchanting essays are those near the end where Janzen the memoirist unpacks the poems of Janzen the poet, even rewrites them, adding a line in the last essay, “My Mother in Venice,” a line that, to my mind, completes the original poem more wondrously.
Entering the World is about exodus, Jean Janzen’s liberation into the world of art and imagination, a world in which traditionally approved answers and conventional responses to experience itself couldn't cover the questions because those traditional paths were not where the art she herself was creating was leading her. Taking that jump--away from tradition and into imagination, in poetry, in theology, and culture—is "entering the wild," what Janzen says her story is all about.
The irony, or so it seems to me, is that that her liberation doesn’t require walking away from her roots but digging down to find them. The more she learns about the mysteries of her own life and the lives of her ancestors, the more happily she can dwell in the world of the spirit, the world of music, the world of art, the world of imagination.
In “Going Home” (Paper House), Janzen traces the path her life has taken, the path outlined in Entering the World. I begins in a childhood memory:
Seven of us crowded into our small
Chevy, the year ’40 or ’41,
I on a little stood on the floor,
baby in mother’s lap, and a mouse
loose in the car. We had traveled
for baptism to Lake Okoboji,
three older siblings in full immersion
under the blinding sun as we sang,
“The cleansing stream, I see, I see.”
Yet, there’s more to the story than what meets the eye:
And then the mood rolled over us
as we drove home, my tilting stool,
my head resting against my sister’s
cleansed thigh, and the little mouse,
unbaptized and unaccountable, like me,
all of us driving with father behind
the wheel toward thunderclouds that rose
in the west, promising everyone salvation.
That last line is just wide enough to make us wonder, as it likely did Jean Janzen herself, when she discovered the line waiting for her at the end of the poem. There’s mystery in a thundercloud "promising everyone salvation," mystery just as there is in sacrament, and in the incarnation.
The beauty of the pilgrimage at the heart of Entering the World is that Jean Janzen doesn’t need to leave something precious behind in order to find herself in a brave new world.