I’m grateful today for publishers and publications that allow small groups of people to keep their collective identity alive.
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?