My posts here go up on the twenty-fifth. It’s an unfortunate fact because it means that I’m stuck with trying to write something that would make sense to be posted on Christmas day. It puts me in the odd position of having to write something that either scrapes through the over-tilled ground of Christmas sentiments or to completely ignore the thing altogether.
I tried writing posts for both approaches. Neither really worked. So instead, I decided that I’d just write about a book that I like to read through near Christmas.
When I graduated from high school, one of my favorite teachers gave me a collection of poetry entitled Purpaleanie and Other Permutations by Sietze Buning. He described the book as an account of processing the transition to adulthood that delved uniquely into belief, family, sexuality, and more, in the context of a community where religion intertwines with all of the above.
This teacher gave a copy of that book to a student or two from each graduating class. I suspect the reason he chose me was because he knew how much I had struggled during high school with my place in the community I had grown up in.
The day after I finished high school, my parents and I hopped in the car and drove all the way to Sioux Center, Iowa. We went there to attend the senior piano recital of our close family friends’ daughter and together celebrate our graduations.
This trip had more poetic value than I’d first have guessed. This miniscule pocket of Christian Reformed immigrants from the Netherlands—Sioux Center, Iowa—was also the setting for Purpaleanie and Other Permutations, the collection I had just been given. So here I was, reading a book of poems about identity and change in the midst of my life’s most significant transition so far, and doing so in their actual setting.
It moved me. Buning shares stories of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, all in the pastoral setting of an immigrant community straining to hold onto their identity and traditions.
And despite all the complexities of familial dynamics, despite the difficulty of balancing independence with connection to others, despite the messy reality of personal relationships, he draws out a sense of peace and hope that can be found, even in the midst of doubt, pain, and loss.
But Buning never existed. Well, he existed in a literary sense, rather than a literal one. Sietze Buning was the creation of Stanley Wiersma, a professor in the Calvin English department until his untimely death while on sabbatical in 1986. My mom took a class with him in 1979.
Buning was both a pen name and a character for Wiersma—a vessel for autobiography, satire, and commentary on the community around him. I’m told that sometimes Wiersma would write a letter to the editor of the CRC’s publication The Banner in character as Sietze Buning, taking a passionate stance on a hot-button theological or political issue. He would then follow up this piece with a rebuttal taking a different stand, written by Stanley Wiersma.
His humor and self-aware approach to difficult realizations in Purpaleanie binds the book’s themes together. If you are from this community or one like it, or if you want to better understand why Dutch CRC people can seem so weird and stoic and conflicted, please read it. In some senses, it’s really a reflection on what it means to be part of anything, both by birth and by choice, something universal, but told with a strong Dutch-American “accent.”
I wish I could link to the book on Amazon or something, but copies of it are hard to come by, even around the Calvin community, as the book is long out of print. That being said, if you bug a certain grammarian with a long history in the Calvin English department, I’m sure he could help point the way to finding a copy, as he was heavily involved in its original publication.
I hope you all have a peaceful, hopeful Christmas.
P. S. If you have read Purpaleanie or any of Sietze’s works and don’t mind, please share the title of a favorite poem in the comments below. I don’t have a Facebook profile, but my favorite is one of his better-known pieces, “Greasing the Windmill.”