The Color Red, or What to Do with Memory :: Spring Timbrel 2014

by Joyce Munro

Joyce Munro

Photo credit: Becca Munro, used with permission

Does she become her dreamed self? Does she marry? Have children? What decision is she making now by not making it?

What happened to her is vermilion. She could mute it with a brown life, covertly twist it with gold boldness, or . . . ?

This carmine memory is like breath, the in and out of her life. Energizing, abating. Yet sometimes memory holds her still, and she sees:

–A kneeling child pleading that his father does not hit his mother: Please, God, No! But it happens anyway.

–A teenager suddenly butt-kicked by his principal. The boy must go to detention, but what about the principal?

–And there she is in a relative’s living room, alone beside a Mennonite minister. She’s hungry to nourish a better self, and then maybe her little life will have some purpose, except what he says—what he says with his touch and eyes—does not seem right. Interminably divided young woman, she’s above and behind herself, not entirely in her own skin but still there.

All these situations let her know where danger lay. Add to them what she heard:

–That the man is the head of the house the way Christ is the head of the church, according to the ministers from the pulpit.

–That this is for your own good, according to her father, when he told her an intimate story and called her mother the reddest word.

She turned to books to understand. “The Politics of Jesus”—there the most beloved theology of peace as authored by the most cherished Mennonite theologian (and an abuser of women).

She became confused by the idea that God is made most manifest in community. Community = church. Church = family. All these = God. All familiar. Which is where most abuse happens. Where the abused knows her abuser. Where the abuser knows to abuse. In the light of a scrupulously naïve community.

Research into her community of origin suggested that people with spiritual weight understood what was going on in her family. She remembers:

–How her sister received a call from class to come to the school office so she could hear this message from an aunt: “Don’t let your parents divorce, it would kill Grammy.” All the Mennonite subjects of these actions were asking the girl to be heroic.

The costly cinnabar of memory can illuminate, so she must also color in this:

–How the Mennonite assistant principal saw in her brother someone who might be dignified by a job in which he represented more than himself, and so by this tenderness saved one troubled teenager.

Using what she sees in red, what if she were still teaching a Sunday School class of thirteen-year-olds?

Would the teacher say aloud what every child who has experienced abuse, she believes, already knows as his internal truth: Someone older or more powerful, who stands for righteousness and affection, is making me, a person, into a thing.

Thirteen-year-olds can comprehend what is legal; the actions of violence—domestic, sexualized, or involving an imbalance of power—are prosecutable. They should know to call 911. They should be told that recompense exists and where to turn for help.

People understand that knowledge empowers, so what might subvert an education like this? What exactly is sacred in concepts of privacy and fear of damage to reputation (of religious institution and family)?

In “Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant,” the Anabaptist Hans Denck is quoted saying that with the right spirit, the heart (translated: her heart) can be improved by all things. A grown up gets to choose how to make a life out of what she’s been given.

So what does a former ten-year-old, who was stripped of her underwear and beaten in front of her family for a transgression she would not remember, now in grandmother time do? From the bowl that shame carved in her, she pours out lavishly. For her grandchildren. And the birds for whom she saves eggshells and leftover fat, making a pottage for their bitterest winter.

These days this rememberer sits in Quaker meeting because of a thrilling idea: there is that of God—there is the Light—in everyone. That way she can imagine something that includes her enemies: a sun-red morning light to burn away mourning.

It was an act of survival when she left the church she loved. And shakily one of imagination. She loves that church still. An organism intent as any upon its survival, in each generation it must choose how to re-member itself—what imagination, what throbbing tenderness to use.

//

Joyce Munro is wrapping up 20 years of teaching writing at Eastern University, PA. She is excited to step out into these next developmental phases of her life, and hopes to complete a spiritual memoir called To Draw Out Splinters: A Mennonite Faith Fiction. She and husband John are members of Unami Friends Meeting, where she serves on the Ministry and Worship committee. Their now grown-up offspring, Becca and Ian, still challenge them.

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