A Mennonite Memoir Filled with Awe: Don Jacobs' What a Life!
I’m grateful today for publishers and publications that allow small groups of people to keep their collective identity alive.
Good Books is one of those publishers. Mennonite World Review offers a place for readers to connect to the books. Hurrah for both!
April 1 issue
Voice of awe and gratitude
Is it unseemly within a church that values humility to encourage people to write whole books about their own lives? In case you have qualms about Mennonites entering the realm of memoir, here is a book that should quiet your fears.
Is the “I” voice a proud voice? Does it glorify the individual at the expense of the community? Nowhere in this volume does the author ask this question. But on almost every page, he answers it.
In literature, the route to the universal “we” goes down deep inside the particular “I” to find the common traits that bind all human beings.
In community, sometimes the pronouns are interchangeable, and we understand that it’s up to us to give the first person singular a communal meaning. In the last chapter, author Don Jacobs reflects on the sentence his mother used for guidance, a sentence many of us heard in our youth:
I was shaped by values that my family embraced, all of which were passed down by them. Hard work. Do your bit. Do not complain. Help one another but look out for yourself. Mom kept repeating, “Remember who you are.” That did not mean, who “I” was but who we as a family are.
To write memoir is to remember who we are. When we do so well, the “I” becomes a “we.” Readers climb into someone else’s skin and take a ride through his or her life, emerging as a better person, grateful for the honesty and courage of the author who motioned us up on his motorcycle so that we can learn what he has learned from life.
All lives are important. All stories can be profound if told well. But only a few can serve as cultural and theological touchstones of a faith community. What a Life! is an example of all of the above.
Jacobs does not feel comfortable on a pedestal, but because he has given us his story, perhaps he will allow us to view it the way he himself was trained to see artifacts — as an example of Mennonite cultural anthropology and social history. Few Mennonite memoirs could serve as better windows into multiple institutions of the church (Eastern Mennonite High School, Eastern Mennonite College, Goshen College, various mission boards and Mennonite Central Committee are just a few) and into Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s great era of mission work, especially in Africa.
Every Mennonite could benefit from reading this book. It’s told with careful research into an unusual genealogy for someone who would go on to play a major leadership role in Lancaster Conference. Born in Johnstown to parents who had as much Lutheran background as Mennonite, Jacobs and the other younger siblings in the family embraced the Mennonite Church. Older brothers lived very different lives, beginning with World War II service in the Marines and the Army.
Jacobs learned an important lesson from his parents, as he observed how they loved all of their 11 children, despite very different life choices. It was his first direct observation of how love could transcend and mend culture — a lesson he would apply over and over again, not only in his own family but also in the churches he helped to establish in Tanganyika and Kenya.
The voice of this memoir, like Jacobs’ voice in real life, teems with energy, exuberance, warmth and humor. It’s a grateful, awe-struck voice, as in this passage describing his early responses to the seasons in Tanganyika:
Sunsets and sunrises lifted my spirit, and the smell of the first rains after a long dry spell sent me into ecstasy. When the long-awaited rains finally came to the parched earth, it felt surprisingly like springtime in Johnstown. Up sprang monkey flowers and amaryllis lilies instead of crocuses, but the impact on the senses was the same. Nature comforted me. I found deep and meaningful delight in nature; birds became icons of God’s love …
Despite Jacobs’ natural exuberance and his central theme of the wideness of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus, this is not a conflict-avoiding memoir. We learn about disappointments, schisms and regrets, but none are recounted in anger or bitterness. In fact, Jacobs assumes more responsibility for things gone wrong than he would have to take.
Only one issue, an important one, is left unresolved. Are — or were — global missions imperialistic, and if so, what should be done about it? For Jacobs, and for the thousands of students who benefited from his leadership training courses, the answer would have to be “no.” But he doesn’t use his memoir to build a case, and he does not repress the criticism. He just tries to tell an honest story. Readers will appreciate that.
This memoir has added greatly to the growing group of stories told from the heart about what it was like to grow up Mennonite and then make choices about callings and careers after being formed by a very particular family in the faith. The approach Jacobs takes is to move through his whole life always asking the question, “Who am I now?” It takes a lot of strength and courage to keep doing this. Some people never probe that far. Some do it once and forget it. Only a few have the stamina to keep forging new identities over and over again well into their 80s. Jacobs is one of the few.
My only regret is that he tried to squeeze such a full and rich life into one volume. Occasionally the strain of having to leave out so much material to keep within the space allocated was visible. This life is a story that could have been two or three volumes long. Fortunately, the author and editors found a way to make it fit between the covers. It won’t spend many nights on the bed stand.
And when you close the book, you’ll have to agree, “What a life!”
Shirley Hershey Showalter’s memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets the Glittering World, will be published in September.
Do you agree that the “I” voice can be a “we” voice? What are the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of self and group as you see the issues?
Shirley, Wonderful post. It sounds as though this book would benefit more people than just Mennonites.
Your paragraph below says it all.
“To write memoir is to remember who we are. When we do so well, the “I” becomes a “we.” Readers climb into someone else’s skin and take a ride through his or her life, emerging as a better person, grateful for the honesty and courage of the author who motioned us up on his motorcycle so that we can learn what he has learned from life.”
Thanks so much for this observation. I love being told that the applications are more universal. 🙂 And I agree that this memoir would appeal to far more than Mennonites.
Thanks for stopping by and for the gentle reminder that my audience here is broad.
So glad you are in it!
HI Shirley, I agree with Joan. This memoir appears to have universal appeal in its ability to invite the reader “into someone’s skin” and emerge a better person. Therein lies the power of memoir to heal and transform others through deeply personal stories. It is in that humanness that we make the connections to one another. So, yes, “I” becomes “we.” Thank you for sharing another thought-provoking post.The Mennonite experience adds an interesting dimension, but the appeal sounds broader. You are adding to the anticipation of your own memoir which I’m waiting in line to read ! 🙂
Thanks, Kathy, for your support of Joan’s point. We memoir writers have to stick together. I’m standing in line for your memoir also!
“We,” the plural of “I,” is a collection of many “I’s, so I don’t see the first person singular pronoun as a pejorative at all. There can be no “we” without the voice of the individual.
You mention that in community, “sometimes the pronouns are interchangeable, and we understand that it’s up to us to give the first person singular a communal meaning.” That assertion was well illustrated by a ritual I observed in a wedding I attended some time ago. The couple each held vases filled with differing colors of sand, the bride’s was red, and the groom’s blue. As they jointly poured the contents of each vase into a larger vessel, a lovely purple hue was created. The image was all the more forceful because on closer view the individual granules were still perceptible though the overall effect was a single color: one person’s individuality merging with another person’s to create something new.
The question is asked, “Is the “I” voice a proud voice? To Mennonites when I grew up, the “I” voice was indeed viewed as proud. We were cautioned: Don’t toot your own horn; don’t seek honor for yourself. There were no horns tooted or pedestals stood upon that I could perceive. A case in point would be my own graduation from EMC, now EMU. Except for a few whisperings prior to the ceremony, I had no idea that I was the salutatorian of my college class until my transcript was released. Back then, as now, I have regarded the failure to announce such achievements as a vain effort to inculcate humility, and to what effect?
I loved the lines referring to memoir: “Readers climb into someone else’s skin and take a ride through his or her life, emerging as a better person, grateful for the honesty and courage of the author who motioned us up on his motorcycle so that we can learn what he has learned from life.”
My conclusion, dear reviewer: it is NOT unseemly to encourage memoir. It both values the individual as it enriches community.
I can tell you and I have been doing a lot of thinking along the same lines, Marian. I was told the same things, but I also experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance due to the fact that my mother was a very unusual Mennonite for her time and place. She had been “fancy” all through high school.
You would be pleased to know that EMU now denotes honors graduates and has an honors program as well. In fact, the memoir class I will teach in the fall is one of those honors courses.
Here is a William Carlos Williams quote I hope you enjoy:
“In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I” I mean also, ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.” Imagination; Spring and All, p. 89.
Good morning, Shirley, Thanks for opening your blog door. I loved reading the comments. Each spoke to me.
On the issue of who is the “I.” I am reminded of a chat that I had with a close friend, a biographical writer. He loved my novelized ancestry book, “As the Wind Blows,” but said that he had wished to see my own story in it. (I stopped my story when it came to the living,) That set my little brain to working. What I said surprised me. “But, brother, I am in every sentence that I wrote, in every punctuation mark. You were reading “ME!” This is not about “them” or even “us,” but it is “me.” That was a couple of months ago. The more I think of it, the more I am aware that I had been pressed to deal with reality as never before. I found that when I am truly “me” that is when I am bundled with a universal “we.” I can never find “me” by looking at the “we.” But I can find my “we” by fully embracing “me.” I see the whole world as I plumb the “me.” Of that I am becoming more convinced. I find it is futile to try to find the “me” by pondering the “we.” I think that am beginning to see all this a little clearer.
Looking at it from this point of view it makes all the sense in the world that the most meaningful embrace is between two ‘me’s” That gives “we” meaning.
In a way, Shirley, when I am opening my heart in story I link with all hearts. Unless the deep in me stirs the deep in my reader I have missed the point entirely. The point of it all is to feel a sizzle when the hot point is touched.
I believe that my story has a universality about it if it moves my reader. When that universality is realized, that is when I can begin to use the word, “we.”
Thanks, Shirley, for pushing this. This is the first time I have tried to articulate, or stammer, about the “I “and the “we.” I am not sure that I am right – but I do think I am close enough to touch the right.
Again, your service to God, heaven and earth is obvious. Love ya.
Deep calls to deep, both in your book and in your comment here, Don. You have described the paradox of the individual and the universal (communal also?) so well: “the most meaningful embrace is between two ‘me’s” That gives “we” meaning.”
Marian’s description of the blue and red grains of sand combining to make purple while still maintaining their own individual colors would make a perfect illustration of your point.
So does your response about your ancestry book being also about you. I love that you call your biographical writer friend “brother.” 🙂 There was wisdom in many of those old ways, Brother Jacobs. May we never lose it. And may we use memoir as a vehicle of passing it along.
Brilliant post, Shirley. You wrote rock-solid prose and philosophy here:
“Is the “I” voice a proud voice? Does it glorify the individual at the expense of the community? Nowhere in this volume does the author ask this question. But on almost every page, he answers it.
“In literature, the route to the universal “we” goes down deep inside the particular “I” to find the common traits that bind all human beings.
“In community, sometimes the pronouns are interchangeable, and we understand that it’s up to us to give the first person singular a communal meaning”
So wise. By chance, I have been thinking about the question he and you raise about missions work. As a kid, it always seemed imperialistic to me, and at the least disrespectful, weakening or killing rich indigenous traditions, common enough attitudes. Lately it occurred to me that proselytizing is at the very core of Christianity, stemming directly from what Christ did and what he taught and encouraged. Islam and Buddhism are the other two large, proselytizing religions I am aware of.
For me, the test of any person’s religion is whether he will extend his God to me. Whether he will grant me his God. The great proselytizing religions, at least, do that, and it’s not trivial. To say God is not only with my clan or on a particular mountain or shrine, or looking out for a particular nation, is to make God a universal, linking good across the globe.
Thank you, Richard, for this affirmation of Don’s book and of my thoughts about memoir that the book evoked.
Your own thoughts about mission fascinate me. I love what you say above. I never heard this thought expressed so succinctly in the context of our current need for multicultural perspective and interfaith dialogue.
I have witnessed amazing love in faraway places from people who only had a desire to share their God. I have also seen mission compounds barricaded with high walls and broken glass on top. Such a contrast.
I think we must be living in a post-post-colonial age, a time when we can see beyond cultural relativism and make finer distinctions. Another field that demonstrates this is ecology. I heard zoologist Alan Rabinowitz describing his approach to the last “wild” human beings, the pygmies he encountered. Some scientists and activists think such people should not be disturbed. They should stay pure and untouched. But they are dying out, and they need some of the knowledge we have. You’ve got to see this video: http://www.onbeing.org/program/voice-animals/feature/last-pure-pygmy-and-his-gift/589
I recommend this entire podcast. Good for your shepherd heart.
What a book I recommend this book to any theological school so tha any one who want to know the nature of the gospel in and out of the box for mission field should not miss to reed this wonderful book
Thank you Dan and mama
We love you
Asante baba na mama
I will be sure that Don Jacobs sees your comment, Bishop Muhagachi. Blessings to you and your family.
Shirley Hershey Showalter