Bindy's Moon

JOURNAL OF MENNONITE STUDIES, JULY 2016

Bindy’s Moon is a beautiful little book, with evocative cover art and aesthetically pleasing layout. From the succinct opening epigraph — “. . . the events of childhood do not pass, they return like seasons of the year”—to the complex interwoven themes and story lines, the book’s unique blend of memoir, essay, confessional, and spiritual wisdom offers much more than its formal designation as “literary essays” or “reflections” might suggest.  Genre labels are not adequate to describe the deep spiritual conversation that engages readers as companions in Ratzlaff’s re-membering of his memories, some of which are regretful, a few angry, but all suffused with grace and overlaid with gratitude for all the stages of personal transformation from a limiting faith to a generous spirit of openness. That evolution of a sensitive self is what makes this book the tender experience that it is. Despite the occasional pained outburst against fundamentalism’s small meannesses, simplistic vision, and everlasting guilt (“I’d still like to wring that religion’s neck, roast and eat the fowl, and pull apart the wishbone” {10}), the predominant tone is gentle understanding: “we were not well instructed in the passage of things, or in how to make love to the world. Our joys were sparse and stolen, hoarded rather than kissed on the fly. We wanted them to stay put, and seeing they did not, we clung to promises that a Lamb’s blood would admit us someday to . . . heaven” (109).

 

Rarely does a book come along that illustrates so well the profound truth that language shapes content. Or, to use W.B. Yeats’ metaphor, just as one cannot separate the dance from the dancer, so in Bindy’s Moon, one cannot separate the stories from the art of the story-teller, even though said story-teller masks his magic in the plainness of his Mennonite roots. And magic it is. In Ratzlaff’s world, the thingness of the world is vivid, alive. The very woodpeckers in the trees along the river nod their heads with interior wisdom. For Ratzlaff, the world is wonderfully alive, worth paying attention to for its own sake. Rather than ascribing significance to what he sees from the position of a detached, spiritually-minded observer, he acknowledges his creatureliness and takes grateful delight in all that has being.

On one level, the essays concern themselves with the poignancy and pregnancy of language, in all its nuances and disguises. From the simple Low German phrases that shaped Ratzlaff’s childhood perceptions to the technicality of psychological terminology and including all the ministerial phrases and love notes in between, language is magnificently itself in these stories and dreams and recollections. His parents may not have been smooth of tongue or versed in rhetoric, but Ratzlaff absorbed a reverence for the Word—“and a taste for the sublime” (113) — that ever after gave him a vested interest in using language to its fullest. All his careers—minister of the gospel, teacher of psychology, and counselor—depend on the wise use of words, and thus have an inherent potential for the misuse of words. Ratzlaff has negotiated his way through the pitfalls and glorious pulpit moments to his last career — writer of himself and of the world that made him. This account of the journey is worth every sentence-step of the way.  

The book is organized around Ratzlaff’s final journey with his “double cousin and soul-brother” Jim Ratzlaff with whom Lloyd grew up. Jim, now facing terminal cancer, is the Bindy of the title, the nickname inadvertently given by his half-deaf grandfather who misheard “Jimmy.” And the moon of the title recalls Jimmy’s childhood wish to hold the moon in his own chubby little hands. Thus is the core of longing in all humans made concrete in the forever unattainable moon; appropriately, the book is divided into four sections, one for each season, beginning with winter. Although the reader learns of Bindy’s death near the end of the spring section, his presence remains strong throughout the second half of the book. Fall, Ratzlaff notes, “is the season of old themes returning: love’s bitter-sweetness, arms open wide as the world, bearing the unbearable contradiction of longing to be in time while yet letting time pass” (109-110). Symbolically dense, with a Jungian awareness, the book invites multiple rereadings.   

Each section contains several discrete vignettes, linked by association, memory, dreams, thematic and aesthetic connections, and the deft unfolding of several stories: “I gather together all my memories and all my loves in a duration beyond tense or time. A small heart listens, but it listens indeed” (110).  Those who have read Ratzlaff’s previous books — The Crow Who Tampered with Time (2002) and Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), with which Bindy’s Moon forms a coherent trilogy (all published by Thistledown)—will already be familiar enough with the broad outlines of Ratzlaff’s life to follow the time shifts with little difficulty. Yet Bindy’s Moon stands on its own as a re-examination of a fundamentalist view of life through the lens of the imminent loss of a friend and brother. The essays, as a whole, refuse to draw conclusions, thus opening up the richness of the now of life, and revealing the weakness of Christian fundamentalism’s focus on the afterlife. It will not do, Ratzlaff maintains, to narrow one’s eyes and see only a selected sliver of the magnificent sunlit world. Always the unattainable moon reflects back to us an inner light of longing that will not diminish itself by demanding flat and unyielding answers, but waxes and wanes in the rhythms of the natural world.

prairie messenger catholic journal, wednesday november 4, 2015

The moon on the cover of Bindy's Moon, Lloyd Ratzlaff's new book, rises above the landscape like the super moon we experienced in late September — large, golden, full of mystery — and gazing on it makes a deep impression on one's soul. Reading this collection of essays, Ratzlaff's third, makes as deep an impression.

Bindy (a nickname for Jim) is Ratzlaff's cousin and closest childhood friend — "both soul-brother and spiritual kin." They grew up within the confines of a strict Mennonite faith and while Ratzlaff struggles to loosen himself from its fundamentalist roots, Bindy returns to those roots when diagnosed in his 50s with a cancerous brain tumour. "Now it seems you're groping back toward a fundamentalism I thought we had both outgrown. I'd still like to wring that religion's neck, roast and eat the fowl, and pull apart the wishbone," says Ratzlaff.

This memoir moves through the seasons (winter to spring to summer and ending with autumn) on a journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and spiritual maturity, with Bindy as the connecting thread. The essays weave and bend like wind through the trees, or like the light of the moon, sometimes dreamlike: Deep in a winter night at the farm where Jim grew up, and where our fathers had grown up before him. I sit in a folding chair in the yard, peering around the back end of a truck to discover the source of light that casts this marvellous glow on the snowdrifts all around.

Time shifts from childhood (nearly fainting from the heat of a pot-bellied stove burned red-hot at the Christmas concert) to being present with Bindy (he was sitting vacantly on the couch as the TV played in the background), back to adolescence (guilt and stealing cigarettes: yet the merchant's tone of voice and hand on my shoulder let me think that maybe my sins weren't as unpardonable as they seemed). The reflections are sometimes sombre, other times hilarious and always poignant. Throughout the journey are stories from many aspects of Ratzlaff's life, as a minister, teacher and counsellor, as a father, friend, husband.

These essays come from a place of deep compassion in a voice infused with poetic grace. It is a voice readers of the Prairie Messenger are very familiar with as Ratzlaff has been a longtime columnist. Indeed some of the essays in Bindy's Moon have appeared in these pages over the past couple of years. This is Ratzlaff's third book of literary essays in a series and, as much as each is a treasure, this is his finest.

— Maureen Weber, Prairie Messenger

 saskatoon star phoenix, saturday june 6, 2015

Bindy's Moon is Saskatonian Lloyd Ratzlaff 's third collection of essays, this one following a sometimes discursive, sometimes intuitive, path on a journey of awareness occasioned by the illness and death of his dear first cousin Jim, nicknamed Bindy.

Ratzlaff opens his collection with the epigraph "The events of childhood do not pass, they return like seasons of the year," and tells readers a few pages later that he has a "deep certainty that all childhood is intact." For Ratzlaff, and his cousin Jim, that childhood was grounded in a fundamentalist religion that saw strict adherence to many rules and Biblical certainty as the only way for a chosen few to make it to a promised and lavish heaven. Any straying from the path occasioned huge guilt, "a rock we pushed uphill every day and by nightfall found it rolled back down."

In Ratzlaff 's lyrical ramble he moves from the urgency he feels to quit smoking in the shadow of his cousin's oncoming death to his reason for first smoking, "simple rebellion," to his childhood stealing of Vogue tobacco from the local grocer and its accompanying guilt - for theft, for smoking, and for sexual urges accompanied by the Vogue lady's alluring portrait. This man is haunted by his elders. "Surely these ancestors laughed and railed and lusted and knew their ecstasies - then why this overwhelming sense of their gravity and righteousness?" Raztlaff 's meditations take him to his failed first marriage - not just an excuse to have sex but simply to talk to a young woman with whom he'd only been able to pass notes at bible college - to the suddenly failed body of an energetic neighbour to his cousin Jim and ultimately to his stepping away from a religion that dogged his every step with threats of sin and eternal damnation. Ratzlaff, to use C.S. Lewis's phrase, finds himself surprised by joy. How he gets to that place through life's usual tribulations is the stuff of these very personal and humble essays.

— Bill Robertson