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A Few Words for Christine Wiebe




We arrived at Hesston College in fall 1980, almost exactly thirty years ago. The job had come up unexpectedly—I had planned to stay in grad school and finish my dissertation—but then, as now, times were tough in academia, and who could pass up actual, full-time employment? My lofty ABD status got me a corner office in the library, with not one but two narrow windows. My wife Marlyce had been hired to type letters and answer the phone for the religion department. We felt like we were finally joining the grown-up world.

In the office next to mine, I soon discovered, was a woman with flowing auburn hair, a ready smile, and a broad hat always at the ready.

Christine with hat

Christine Wiebe became one of my first and best friends at Hesston. Between us, we pretty much were the English department. I recall going for a sunny walk as we were getting acquainted—it might have been during faculty retreat at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp—and she told me that the hat and the light butterfly rash across her cheeks were because of her lupus. Christine talked about all the disease with simplicity, humor, and bluntness; she knew it wasn’t fair; she knew that didn’t change anything. She dealt with what she had been given, but she was not a willing martyr.

Already Christine was writing seriously—mostly fiction in those days, as I recall. She had taken at least one workshop at Wichita State, and showed me a story with encouraging comments by the professor. But it was hard to write much while teaching a full load at Hesston; the pace was exhausting for us all. A few times we got together to talk about our work, and we went together to a gathering of Kansas writers once, but often I was too busy and distracted by my own agenda to notice what was up with Christine. In her journal/memoir How to Stay Alive she describes, in an entry from 1994, reading her journals from over a decade earlier:

"Tonight I read how lonely I was at Hesston, and how I sensed something else was in store for me, how I would have to walk alone. I didn’t realize then the loneliness I felt had to do with my illness and the walk I have to take alone, I am taking now."

I was married, pressing forward toward my terminal degree; I felt at home in the academic life, however exhausting it sometimes was. But Christine was less easy in this little world. I don’t remember her talking much about her earlier service work in Winnipeg—why didn’t I ask her about it?—but she was restless, not sure she belonged in this little Mennonite town, not sure she wanted to teach. As a single woman, she felt excluded by the small-town social scene, dominated by couples, children, and church. She didn’t have an advanced degree, and wasn’t always taken seriously by the administration. When her lupus or one of the side effects kicked up, she struggled to keep up the frantic pace of four-course semesters.

Before long she took off for Chicago, where she got a nursing degree, joined the Catholic church, and developed a close circle of friends. It was a good move for her. Ten years later, reflecting on another writer’s refusal of a university job, she would write “I don’t think I will ever be happy in any institution, and would be much happier working on my own.” Did she have Hesston in mind? When I read her mother’s memoir, I was almost startled to see the two years or so when we worked together in Hesston passed over in just a few sentences. The heart of her life was elsewhere.

We kept in occasional touch, but both of us were entangled in all sorts of other ways, and our contacts were intermittent. I finished my dissertation, moved to Bluffton, kept trying to write, and eventually had some success and publications. Finding the demands of city life too much for her physically, Christine returned to Wichita, where she could count on family support, though she missed her Chicago friends right to the end.

Christine at desk

Where did all my letters from Christine go? My haphazard files are jammed with letters from my writer friends, but I can’t find a single one of hers. I know we wrote; sometimes she’d send a poem or two. Often she had news of her latest health crisis, and how she’d survived it. Depending on the circumstances, sometimes she was still low, but other times she’d bounced back and seemed even exhilarated by winning another battle with the Adversary.

Were they all Christmas letters, sent to the house and so not saved?

My email archives do have a couple of notes from her—the longest from July 1998, one of her late, good stretches. She described helping her mother get around, for a change, after Katie had broken a foot, and how good it felt to rise to that challenge. Just back from a Women Doing Theology conference at Bethel College, she wrote warmly of that event: “It was good to meet women who like to think and who greeted me without saying to the next person, ‘Her mother is Katie Wiebe.’" She had been reading a lot—Julie Cameron, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Gaines—and wondered what books I would suggest.

Her last note, from the next year, was to a group of friends, announcing happily that she had just moved into the Lorraine Center and inviting us to visit—“not all at once, but definitely this year. . . . It's windy but warm. Purple crocuses have already disappeared, four bright red tulips are straining for some sun under a mock orange bush, and a row of tiny purple hyacinths line the front yard. Have a great day.”

We never made it there, though we visited her once in Chicago, not long after she left Hesston. I remember a sunny apartment, tea around a table, and Christine confident and glowing, in her element. But I wish now, of course, that we had kept in better touch.

Her book How to Stay Alive is a kind of daybook, a chronicle of her life during 1993-1995. As was so often the case, her health intruded constantly into daily life, bringing fatigue, bouts with depression, job-related challenges. She made many friends, and maintained close ties with her family; she craved solitude, yearned to marry, was often lonely, and knew very well that these yearnings could hardly all be satisfied at once. The writing, lucid and economical, is filled with eloquence, wisdom, joy and sorrow. “Now I feel my strongest role seems to be a sick person, one I don’t like,” she writes near the beginning.

Much of her life, it’s true, was filled with the struggle just to stay alive, and to write and love, to sing and work, within that struggle. Her illness clearly was a burden and a barrier; yet still Christine was a writer, always. Like almost all writers, she struggled with self-doubt, with feeling ignored and under-published. Certainly with good health she might have done a great deal more; she might have a long list of books and be at work on her masterpiece, right now.

How to Stay Alive ends in the fall of 1995, after a serious crisis that she did not expect to survive. Yet somehow she rallied, recovered her strength, and assembled this moving chronicle of struggle and survival. She printed copies for family and friends; if you can find one, I promise that it will nourish you.

Christine thought a good deal about Flannery O’Connor, another writer whose life was cut short by lupus, who never married, who lived with her mother for long stretches. At the end of O’Connor’s famous “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” an outlaw known as the Misfit says this of the woman he has just discussed life, fate, and Jesus with—then killed: “She’d of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

O’Connor knew, as Christine did, the way life changes when one knows that it might end soon. But the lupus, the heart attack, the gout, the defibrillator, all the medications and procedures that kept her recalcitrant body going, only deepened her determination to have her say. And she left behind much that we would do well to cherish and remember.

Christine with hat off

“I don’t really believe in my own death,” Christine quotes a man in her poetry class as saying, partway through How to Stay Alive. I might have laughed scornfully at that if I were her, or sniffed in disgust. But instead she muses, quietly:

Hm, I thought. Well, I have died. I have been so close to the edge that I wonder when I will step across. My heart thumps and I consider how it will be at the end.

Is death a footstep

a fall across an avalanche

transformation into a winged being

a great sleep

a meeting with old friends?

Rest well, Christine. I trust we will meet some day.

About the Author

Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy’s Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace appeared from Cascadia in fall 2013. This gathering of essays on theopoetics and Mennonite writing is a sequel to his Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing, winner of the Dale E. Brown Award. His sixth full-length collection of poems, Somewhere Near Defiance, was published by Anhinga early in 2014. An essay on his time in Salzburg as a Fulbright lecturer, “The Other Side of Empire,” is forthcoming in The Georgia Review. Other recent work is in The Sun, Nimrod, Conrad Grebel Review, Kenyon Review Online, Shenandoa and Kestrel. A graduate of Goshen College, with a PhD in English from Indiana University, he teaches at Bluffton University.

Photo by Bill Walker