This month’s interview is with an amazing woman in her 70’s–Greta Holt. I met her in a MasterMind group I was in a few years ago and have been following her blog ever since. Greta is a Mennonite, and her religious beliefs inform her social activism. She does not just stand by and talk about issues–she does something about them! Please join me in conversation with this bright, energetic, funny, inspiring woman who is truly living her 70s!
Diane: Hi Greta. I loved meeting you through Dan Blank’s Mastermind. And then when I was introduced to some of your writing, to your blog–and to the Mennonite religion, which I had heard of but knew nothing about–I became fascinated and inspired. So I’m really excited to introduce you to my readers. Let’s just dive in. Sound good?
Diane: Can you just tell people, who may be ignorant like I was, what being a Mennonite is all about?
Greta: The Mennonite church is an Anabaptist denomination that is committed to non-violence, separation of church and state, and voluntary service.
It comes from the 16th century, part of the Radical Reformation, and was a student movement that felt Martin Luther and Ulrich Swingli did not go far enough in allowing regular folks to read and interpret the Bible, which was really a new thing then. They also wanted people to be free to decide whether they would be baptized into a state church.
The Anabaptists were persecuted but managed to survive, some of us going to Russia, others to Germany, Austria, and Holland. My group started in Switzerland. We were forced from the center of Switzerland out to the Jura Mountains, where the French allowed us to stay up on top of the mountains if we wouldn’t come down and preach our ways!
When one of the many Alsace Lorraine wars was taking place, our group came over and eventually landed in Indiana.
“After He Served in World War II, He Decided the Mennonites Were His Home. (Also, He Was in Love with Mom.)”
Diane: So are you the first conscientious objectors?
Greta: Some of the first in the United States, yes, among Brethren, Hutterites, and others, although war objectors have existed throughout history. In the First World War our men were conscientious objectors and they suffered greatly. The government finally agreed to conscientious objector status, but it remains always difficult for a young man to follow the disciplines of nonviolence.
Diane: Do you live in a Mennonite community?
Greta: I grew up in a number of them. In Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio. My parents met at Oberlin College. Dad was not Mennonite. He was from outside of New York City, about 4 miles east of Queens on Long Island. After he served in World War II, he decided that the Mennonites were his home. (Also, he was in love with Mom.)
Diane: What is a Mennonite community?
Greta: A Mennonite community is simply a place where there are more Mennonites than other people. Let’s see, we were in a community in which there was a Mennonite mental hospital…
Greta: In World War II, a lot of the Mennonite men who were conscientious objectors worked in psychiatric hospitals. They found the hospitals terrible and tried to make a lot of changes. In another small town in Pennsylvania, my parents worked at Mennonite Central Committee from which people were sent over the world to do service. The religion doesn’t believe much in proselytizing. It’s more that we serve as teachers, agricultural people, or city planners and just help out.
Diane: Wherever there is a need, you just go in there and do what you can to help out.
“A Long Time Ago, Some Churches Didn’t Allow Instruments, Not Even Pianos.”
Diane: Are you living in a Mennonite community now?
Greta: No, I’m living in Cincinnati, Ohio. My Mennonite church started here in 1974 as part of a movement to create urban Mennonite churches. There were very few at that point. So, we started as a house church with a voluntary service unit: people came to work in the social work field, in housing rehab, with prisoners, or with the elderly. And we just grew.
Today, we support a community meal. We’re part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network that helps the homeless. We support a number of the Ten Thousand Villages stores which came out of Mennonite Central Committee and are part of the fair trade movement. It is all volunteer work. My husband and I clean one store, while others work as sales clerks.
We started the Mennonite Arts Weekend to which visual, musical, and poetry/prose artists come to share their skills. A long time ago, some churches didn’t allow instruments, not even pianos.
Greta: Many artistic pursuits were forbidden in the church, except for hymn singing. Singing was a big deal. Our congregations still love a cappella and four-part singing.
The Mennonite Arts Weekend was started as a way to include our artists in the greater community of the religion.
Diane: So you’re a rebel?
Greta: Yep, our church is on the liberal spectrum.
“Community Decision Making Was/Is Central”
I just thought of another organization we support. It’s called People Working Co-operatively. The other day a group of us raked people’s leaves who couldn’t do it themselves. We get together through the things that we attend to.
Diane: It sounds like a pretty social group.
Greta: It is. It comes from an old Anabaptist belief in community, joining together to study the Bible, rather than having priests tell them what the Bible said and what to believe. Community decision making was/is central.
Diane: Do you have religious leaders?
Greta: We have male and female ministers, but many of us are used to preaching to each other. The religion makes room for individual expression. Congregants develop things that we’re interested in and we invite others to join us. Right now, my Sunday School is studying climate change. We’ve studied race relations, the New Jim Crow, and immigration issues. We end these studies with actions that we can take as individuals or in groups.
Diane: That is so fabulous. So each member will bring up something that he or she is interested in and that’s what you will study?
“The Early Anabaptists Were About ‘Doing’ One’s Faith, Not Just Talking About It. We Feel Them Calling Across the Years to ‘Get Busy!’”
Diane: And then you say, okay, now that we have this information, what are we going to do about it?
Greta: The early Anabaptists were about ‘doing’ one’s faith, not just talking about it. We feel them calling across the years to ‘get busy!’ so we’ll come up with plans of things we can do. It’s not easy to turn off the voices (sometimes sweet and other times strident) of those martyrs who died under torture. The responsibility—one I can sometimes shrug off successfully—leads us down some interesting paths.
After high school in the 1960s, I did a month of voluntary service in Chicago with other Mennonite kids and became involved in the Chicago Freedom Marches. Those conflicts informed my feelings about social justice. The marches were violent. We learned very quickly about race.
I went into teaching kids with learning disabilities and did that for my career.
Diane: In a public school?
Greta: Yes. I never went to a private Mennonite school because my father was not Mennonite. In January’s blog, I wrote about having a prayer cap on my right shoulder and a Scottish kilt on my left. And balancing those two realities.
Diane: So tell us about that. What was balancing like?
“My Grandma and Grandpa Were on the Liberal Side … They Lived in a Conservative Mennonite Town and Would Close Their Curtains to Play Cards with My Parents”
Greta: It no longer matters if you’re part Mennonite, but back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, being ethnic Mennonite was a pretty big deal. You belonged. My sisters and I knew that my father with his non-Mennonite ways was different. It could be hard sometimes. My parents, of course, had no trouble playing cards or dancing.
Diane: And those are things that are not traditionally Mennonite.
Greta: Things have loosened considerably. But cards and dancing were not traditionally Mennonite. I do have to say that my grandma and grandpa were on the liberal side, though. They lived in a conservative Mennonite town and would close their curtains to play cards with my parents. They weren’t even supposed to go to the movies back then. (If you could manage to find a way to get out of town, maybe you could go to a movie!)
Diane: I’m guessing there were no wagers in those card games?
Greta: No, absolutely not. It’s been good to have existed half in and half out of my culture because it has taught me to look at characters in my writing from a little farther back and to know that nobody is purely formed.
Diane: That’s very interesting. Yeah. So how did you get into writing?
Greta: Mom and Dad served in Africa for 9 years. In the ‘80s, I visited them in Botswana and took notes. When I came back, I thought I could write some short stories. I don’t know how it happened, but I was lucky enough to get two Ohio Arts Grants.
That encouraged me to keep going. Some of those stories have been published.
“To Be Involved in Social Justice Issues Means That You Accept a Great Deal of Humility. Often You Don’t Get to See Progress Until Many Years Later”
Diane: Social consciousness is very important to you.
Greta: It is. Church members have marched with Black Lives Matter in Cincinnati and marched with the women’s marches in Columbus Ohio, Cincinnati, and D.C. We write to our Congresspeople and attend the Inter-community Peace and Justice Center where we talk about race relationships. Personally, this year I became vice-president of the Central District Conference Mennonite Women’s Organization.
Greta: Yeah, well, I don’t think anybody else wanted to do it! I posted some blogs on their Facebook page and got tagged for the work.
Diane: Do you see the fruits of your social activism?
Greta: Wow, wonderful question! Does anybody ever get to live long enough to see the fruits of their actions? I think only after looking back over a long time. To be involved in any social justice issues means that you accept a great deal of humility. Often you don’t get to see progress until many years later. History looks back and says, okay, things are getting a little bit better.
“You Better Have Your Ego in Check Before You Think, ‘I’ll Go in There and Accomplish Things!’”
Maybe those involved in helping one person can see change happening. But you better have your ego in check before you think, ‘I’ll go in there and accomplish things!’ We all have to contribute what we can and then let society and time work on issues, too.
Diane: And I image your faith probably helps you be more patient and accept that things are not going to necessarily change in the way you envision.
Greta: Oh, absolutely—when I can keep my ego in check and my depression at bay.
Diane: So, I think the gift of the Trump Presidency is that it has gotten people off their butts.
Greta: Love the image of the ‘gift.’ Yes.
“It Takes Some Courage to Hang in There”
Diane: But my concern is that we live in a society of immediate gratification. Unless things change dramatically, and quickly, people are going to just get fed up and go turn on Netflix.
Greta: I worry about that too. It takes some courage to hang in there, and it takes humility. In one blogpost I wrote about David Brooks from PBS NewsHour. He went to one of the women’s marches and noticed that the people were good hearted. There was no cultural fighting, no radicalization during the march.
But then when he returned from the march and followed the feedback on Twitter, it looked like a different march with everybody shouting at one another. He said if we would look at the real world and not Twitter so much, we would find that all of us basically want the same things: safety, good schools, kindness, healthcare. He advises working together to make that happen.
Diane: Instead of going onto the somewhat anonymous spaces and just spew our anger.
“We Put Ourselves in These Boxes Where Everybody Agrees with Us. We Yell at the People in the Other Boxes and Then Close Our Box Lids Tight”
Diane: It scares me. It scares me a lot.
Greta: I find myself writing about us hiding in boxes. We put ourselves in these boxes where everybody agrees with us and we yell at the people in the other boxes and then close our box lids tight.
Diane: That’s a great metaphor.
Greta: It’s sad. Unfortunately, the Mennonite church is having some real break-ups over LGBTQ concerns in the way we structure our responses and our openness to that community. My side of the church lets me embrace other beliefs. My niece just married a Jewish woman.
Diane: Your niece is Mennonite?
Greta: Yes. After college, she joined the Mennonite church where she lives, and she and her partner met in a Jewish synagogue.
Diane: What kind of wedding was it?
Greta: It was Jewish and Mennonite. It took place under a chuppah. It was so beautiful. Both religions had to be open for that to happen.
Diane: That’s right. What is the role of women in the Mennonite community?
Greta: For many years women were, as in most churches, not allowed to be ministers. Now we most certainly are. I do have to say that the more conservative Mennonite groups aren’t as welcoming as we are.
Diane: I think it’s probably the same in most religions.
Greta: Yes, I totally agree.
Diane: I know in Judaism, you can have a female rabbi in reform or conservative congregations, but not in Orthodox.
Greta: Yeah, exactly same.
Diane: So they can be ministers and pastors…
Greta: Oh, sure.
“Being a Quieter Person, I Really Had to Find My Own Way. Teaching Kids with Learning Disabilities (and Being a Part of Their Lives) Has Been a Happy Way to Express Myself”
Diane: What about strong women in your own life?
Greta: There were many. My grandma was educated in the first class of Bluffton College and I admired her tremendously. My mother was every bit as much a role model. She was a musician: a conductor and a teacher of music in the elementary through college levels. Being a quieter person, I really had to find my own way. Teaching kids with learning disabilities (and being a part of their lives) has been a happy way to express myself.
Diane: Do you consider yourself a strong woman?
Greta: Oh girl! I always consider myself conflicted, neurotic, barely able to get up in the morning, and yet I can give a speech. I can get up in church and preach. I used to be a musician, so I gave recitals. I can do stuff in front of people, but I hold in my heart a great need for quiet. And a desire for time alone. So, I can’t say I’m one of those outwardly strong folk.
Diane: But they’re all different ways to be strong. There is quiet strength.
Greta: I hope so.
“I Surely Thought I Would Feel That Promised Freedom from Anxiety in My 50s. Nope. But It Is Finally Happening in My 70s”
Diane: What about aging? Any more freedom there?
Greta: I surely thought I would feel that promised freedom from anxiety in my 50s. Nope. But it is finally happening in my 70s. Since I’ve accepted that nobody gets out of life alive, I am finding that things don’t bother me so much. Honestly, it was accepting death that has given me this relaxation.
Diane: Isn’t it wonderful?
Greta: It is.
Diane: So, it took you till your 70s to relax. Better late than never, right?
Diane: And what else have you found about growing older as a woman or in general?
Greta: I have found that I’m much kinder to my husband than I ever was.
Diane: That’s so interesting.
Greta: I’m sure he’s happy.
Diane: We’ll have to ask him.
Greta: I have.
“Now We Eat Our Breakfast Together. It’s Such a Luxury”
Diane: So he notices it too?
Greta: He tells me, ‘oh you’ve always been nice,’ but I know, I know.
Diane: So, I guess your relationship has gotten stronger?
Greta: Oh, yes. Now we eat our breakfast together. It’s such a luxury. He has the Washington Post on his computer, and I have the New York Times on mine. The cat comes around and we discuss the issues of the day and solve all the problems of the world…Well, the cat contributes as she can.
Diane: Oh, that’s wonderful. If only, right?
“… the 70s Will Be a Time of Letting My Mind and Body Calm Down a Little Bit”
Greta: Later in the day we go to the gym and workout. That’s another thing for me in getting older. I never could organize myself to lose weight until very recently.
Diane: Oh, yeah, tell me about that.
Greta: I lost 57 pounds and took about 2 years to do it. I hope that I’m going to enjoy my 70s because I don’t know what the 80s will bring. But I think the 70s will be a time of letting my mind and body calm down a little bit.
Diane: I bet you feel healthier.
Greta: Yes. For sure.
Diane: And more energy?
Greta: Oh, tons.
Diane: Isn’t that great?
Greta: Yeah, it’s amazing.
Diane: Yeah, so everybody who’s afraid of getting older, this is a wonderful picture here, right?
Greta: The New York Times just had a piece where they followed a bunch of people into their 90s…
Diane: Oh wow.
Greta: There was a woman who was 96 years old. She was so sharp, and I just thought, wow, I want to be that lady.
“This Year is Our 50th Wedding Anniversary… So We’re Going to Celebrate All Year Long”
Diane: What do you look forward to?
Greta: Right now, I’m working a novel about a Mennonite girl. So I’m really enjoying that and certainly hoping that I finish it before I’m dead.
Diane: That’s a good goal. It’s easier to write when you’re alive.
Greta: Oh, this year is our 50th wedding anniversary.
Greta: So we’re going to celebrate all year long.
Diane: That’s wonderful. So, one last thing I’ve heard you mention briefly that in the Mennonite religion, you can’t give yourself too many pats on the back.
Greta: Yes, humility is looked upon as a strength. In my home, when we did something well it was simply mentioned. But in my husband’s world, when people did things, like a clarinet solo or a speech, the whole family went wild. In mine it was a calmer thing.
Diane: So, yours is not a trophy culture.
Greta: Trophy culture, that’s funny.
Diane: I’m just thinking of the little kids on the soccer field and everybody gets the trophy.
Greta: Oh, yes. It is definitely not a trophy culture. That’s a wonderful way to put it.
Diane: So do you have a working title for your book?
Greta: Right now it is called Anna the Martyr.
Diane: Anna the Martyr. Oh, interesting. She considers herself a martyr?
Greta: Yes, wanting to be, but not wanting to be.
Diane: That push pull, huh?
Greta: Exactly. You said it. I want to ask about your writing.
Diane: Well, I used to write when I was teeny, third grade even. I was kind of a sad kid and writing always helped me.
I have dear friend who is a psychic and when Hillary lost, I just called him and said I don’t know what to do with myself. And he said you have to write. I hung up the phone and went to my computer and found Antioch Los Angeles’ MFA program that has a social justice component.
Greta: I wish I would’ve done one of those programs. My writers group met at the Antioch, the actual Antioch campus, and then when it closed, they kept the one in Los Angeles open. I’m so happy for you.
Diane: Thank you. You know you can still do it. It is low residency—10 days, twice a year for two years.
Greta: Did you write about Hillary when you first started?
Diane: No, I didn’t. It was just like I have to do something about this mess.
Greta: Do something. D-O. D-O.
Diane: Yes, yes, yes!
Greta: I started calling congressional people.
Diane: Oh, totally. But you know what? I would sign every petition. I would be on that phone. And the people I mentioned before, the one’s I was worried about not seeing the fruits of their phone calls? I’m one of them. And I don’t want to be. I don’t make those phone calls and write those letters anymore.
Greta: I haven’t for a while either.
Diane: So, this is a good reminder.
“You Can Become Very Proud of Being Humble!”
Greta: You talked about humility and I need to say that Mennonites can be great egotists—with the best of them. It’s just that humility is an ideal.
Diane: I got it. I got it. We’re all human, right? And ego is a part of us.
Greta: Oh, you can become very proud of being humble!
Diane: Yes! “I am the most humble person you’d ever meet.”
Greta: Oh, yeah. Seen it, done it.
Diane: I love it. I love it. That’s great. Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to end this interview. The ideal of humility and the necessity of doing!
Greta: Oh, you bet. Thank you, Diane!
Diane: Thank you, Greta!