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Excerpt from Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries edited by Christl Verduyn

From Chapter 3 1940s: Must Write
August 26, 1949

My article on the Mennonites was delivered to Maclean’s yesterday. God save it from their cutting pencil. It is much too long. I hope they won’t destroy its life and leave only the externals. Spent the evening with the W.O. Mitchells (32). They are so earnest, so eager, so completely natural. Bill is like a lion, he roars and immediately after he purrs and yet to say he is like a lion is rather ridiculous since essentially he is a gentle soul, but fiery. He read, and we discussed, E.M. Forster’s article in Harpers, “Art for Art’s Sake” (33). Bill loves Forster. I must read him. I don’t know why but something in me turns away from him as a man who stands on the brink of life and will not let himself be drawn into it. I may be wrong. I know nothing about his life. “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are always new filters etc.” Bill said he thinks I should rewrite my Neil’s Harbour book as a novel. He thinks it could have terrific power, whereas now it is just a sort of snapshot album. He is right, but can I wait long enough to change it? I need now the freedom that having a book published will give me. Or will it? No, one must always struggle for freedom, struggle with oneself, that is. I could have much more freedom here every day if I would not let myself be interrupted by all the people who come to me here. But I don’t want to hurt them. I want them to love me. But this analytical thinking about motives is what I want to avoid. I must learn to let my thoughts be creative, and analyzing is not creating.

Forster speaks of mateyness (34). An artist may not become matey. Bill interpreted that to mean that he must not accede to the expected. One must not conform, give in against one’s principles, fall in love. The article went on to speak of detachment and slouching around with a hat pulled down over one’s eyes. I thought he talked of actual mateyness with people. Surely one must know people, listen to people, observe people, absorb people to become people, in order to create people. We don’t really create. We merely digest and that which we have absorbed comes through us in a new form. That is why I doubt if I shall ever write quickly. It would be like gobbling something up and spewing it out, undigested—very vulgar. But to get back to this mateyness. As one listens to people, one gives one’s attention. They give whatever they have or want to give and the artist lets is seep into him to become a part of him....


Excerpt from “How to Live without Wars and Wedding Rings” 1950 (published in Maclean’s July 1, 1950

Martin’s Meeting House, on the highway north of Waterloo, is more than a hundred years old; its painted clapboards gleam white. A wire fence surrounds its yard, kept neat by a munching cow, and the cemetery beside it where rows and rows of plain white slabs mark the grassy, flowerless graves. There are no family plots: here Nathanial Lichty, Josiah Ernst, Susannah Eby, Israel Weber, Veronica Erb, Rebecca Shantz—and the stillborn infants of David and Bevvy Martin—lie side by side.

Open buggies, two-seaters and boxlike dachwaegles (top buggies) came in a steady stream as the black-clad people gathered to worship. Horses pranced up to the cement stoop along one side of the building. Women and little girls in shawls and bonnets alighted; grandmothers went through a door near the front, mothers and children near the centre, young girls hurried to the back. Men and boys drove to the hitching chains, then entered the church on the farther end. In a crowded cloakroom on the women’s side, shawls hung on wooden pegs and black bonnets lay on shelves; on the heads of the rosy-cheeked, chattering girls wore caps of white organdie with pale coloured ribbons tied under their chins. The style of their hair and their print cotton dresses had no variation.

Light flooded the church from small-paned windows, walls were whitewashed, scrubbed pine floors and benches were worn smooth and shiny. Women sat on one side, men on the other, on benches that were half the length of the church, each bench a step higher than the one in front of it. In the aisle between them were two stoves with long smokestacks. Suspended from the ceiling above each bench on the men’s side were wooden bars with wooden pegs for the men’s broadbrimmed hats.

A long, desk-like lectern in the centre front of the church had an open space before it to be used for baptism and feet-washing ceremonies. Behind the lectern five men sat side by side; a sixth man approached, kissed and shook hands with the others, then took his place among them. “That’s our preacher,” Salome whispered to me. “The others are preachers too and our bishop.”

Chosen for life by lot from slips of paper drawn from a Bible, the Old Order Mennonite preacher, Salome told me, is also a farmer. He receives no pay, prepares no written sermons: his spontaneous word is believed to be inspired. And he has authority. If a church member buys what he is not supposed to, marries outside the Old Order, gets drunk too often, or does worldly things, the preacher will speak to him privately. If the vanity or sin is not repented, if it is irremissible, the erring one is denounced before the congregation. Though cast out of the church, he is not treated unkindly and, if contrite, may return.

Salome opened a hymn book printed in German script. Led by a man’s voice, the congregation sat while it droned each syllable; the bishop preached for half an hour. The members of the congregation, turning to face their seats, knelt for silent prayer, their backs to the front of the church. “To live honestly and at peace with all men” was the text of the preacher’s hour-long sermon in Pennsylvania Dutch.

Throughout the service the older men and women sat very still but in the long benches in front there was constant movement of babies and tiny children being hushed or taken to the cloakroom by mothers with bulging satchels. Two rows of lively little girls, their braids tied with string or a bit of shoelace, couldn’t restrain a few giggles. The young girls who sat high at the back of the church turned solemn eyes towards the preacher or stole glances at the young men on the high benches at the other side of the room.

During the last hymn the little ones filed into the cloakroom. Babies in bright print or lustre dresses, black stockings and colorful booties were bundled up in black or purple shawls. The service over, women and children clustered on the cement stoop to chat till their men drove up smartly to pick them up in their buggies or two-seated wagons. Salome blushingly told me she was invited out for the day.

“Sunday is our visiting day,” Bevvy explained. “Sometimes we have twenty people drop in for a meal.”

“And don’t you know they’re coming?” I asked.

“Not always, they chust come after church. When Menno Horsts moved to the farm over there behind those maples they had fifty-six the first Sunday.” She smiled. “Everyone was inquisitive to see their new house.”

“How do you feed them?”

Ach, that don’t bother us, everybody helps. There’s always lots in the cellar or the garden, and every Friday we bake cakes and buns and nine or ten pies. If somebody comes they’re all eaten at one time and if not we haf them the rest of the week.”

During the next three days the Martins answered many more of my questions.

“The preachers tell us to vote if we need a new bridge or something like that, but we don’t know enough about politics to vote for the country. Artificial insemination of our cattle gives us better stock. With electricity we can do more work. Salome can run the tractor. Telephones we may have in the barn for business—if we sell fresh meat or the like of that—but not in our houses for pleasure.

“We wouldn’t want our children to hear some of the things on the radio or television. If we had musical instruments we mightn’t sing so much ourselfs. We never heard yet of any of our people stealing or getting in any trouble with the law.”

I told them a story I’d heard about a man who tried to sell a car to an Old Mennonite. The farmer said he couldn’t buy it because the devil was in it.

“But what about the gasoline motor you use?” the salesman asked. “It’s the same thing—isn’t the devil in that too?”

“Maybe, but he’s fastened down and I can make him do whatever I want, in a car he’s running around and might get out of control.”