When I was growing up, we spent many family vacations traveling to “Amish country” in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Our little pull behind trailer would follow our van to a KOA campground where our little 12 x 20 space of the earth would be home for a week. The first night was always exciting; we would build a campfire, cook a meal from among the week-planned cans and assorted fresh produce we had brought with us. If I was lucky, there would be s’mores or at least some marshmallows skewered on sticks. The days (and meals) admittedly began to drag on a bit as the week went on, but it was still a change in pace, and a break from routine.
Looking back as an adult, I find it ironic that my already simple, country, religious family would go even more deeply into a simpler, more rural and even stricter religious community to vacation. Those trips defined my childhood and youth, though, with perhaps an amusement park tacked on in one direction or the other. The only two city trips we ever made were later, when I was in high school: Toronto and Montreal. Then, it truly did feel like we went to visit a new world. Visiting Amish country felt in many ways like spending time with a more intensified version of our current life.
So what did I learn from my family’s time in Amish country?
First, I learned that the Amish are no more or no less happy than any of the rest of us. I didn’t see constantly gleeful children, nor horribly sad ones. I saw a lot of children working at chores, or walking around “just being” (which is what my daughter professes to do, too). Some adults generally groused about weather or chores, some spoke cheerfully of things they enjoyed. A general pragmatism prevailed in Amish country that was very similar to the farming life that was all around me. I suspect that was part of the draw for my family’s visits, actually. I remain unconvinced that simplicity itself makes us happier. I believed then, and I believe now, that its a much more complex equation than that.
I learned that community really does matter. I actually have seen most of a building structure emerge in a week with everyone pitching in to help. It is pretty amazing. There is a sense of mutual support that is palpable, I will admit.
The Amish taught me immediately about something that would mark my career: the role of insiders, and outsiders. It is crystal clear in Amish country who the outsiders are: everyone else. It doesn’t matter how many bonnets we buy or cinnamon rolls and churned butter we consume: we are all outsiders. You can be liked, trusted, befriended, or merely tolerated: you will still be an outsider. Even at a young age, I felt this profoundly. What I liked was that no one among the Amish was trying to convince me to be Amish. They were who they were, and we were who we were. That was enough for them. It was the rest of us trying to be like the Amish, without really wanting to be the Amish that made me a bit nutty. It was refreshingly peaceful to just be the outsider, and to know that was perfectly OK.
I do think, on some days, that it would be an improvement to have only one color of clothing to launder. Boring, but easier. I respect the practical wisdom in that communal decision.
One day, my family and I took an Amish horse and buggy ride. I had to sit in front with the driver and I was so anxious I could have crawled out of my skin. It was like I had a flash in that seat of how not Amish I was, and how not Amish I would ever be. I could also feel, like a sixth sense cutting through me, that it wasn’t that the Amish chose to be Amish. It was that they were born Amish and chose to remain Amish, and deferred finding out or questioning what all the other options were. The Amish life was good, because it was what life offered. Nonresistance, the hallmark of their anabaptist faith tradition, also applied to their life choices. I knew I was not cut from that blue cloth.
When our day with the Amish finished, we would come back to the campground, sit around the campfire eating s’mores and I would ponder, as I watched the embers flicker, exactly who I was meant to be. That question has never ended for me: who am I, and how do I move through this world being my truest self? My answer keeps changing, as I am exposed to the diversity of human experience. I love that I have the privilege to keep knowing more about the diversity of this amazing world, to ask the questions of my mind and my soul, to keep my intellectual curiosity flowing and my spiritual quest continuing.
Today, on a summer day that reminds me of those days in Amish country, I realize that I have followed the kind of meandering path that a wandering and questioning spirit like I am needs to walk in this lifetime. For me, wandering isn’t necessarily to the ends of the earth, but into the depths and diversity of what makes us human. I would probably be the one to sneak a peek under the lid from Pandora’s box, or pick and eat the fruit from the mythical tree of the knowledge of good and evil with or without the encouragement of a slithering reptile. I admit it…if it’s there, then it calls to me to be explored. The small points of light that I have found are in places that some people would rather not even care to know existed, and God has met me there. That inquisitiveness of my spirit is as blessed by Divine Presence as is the simplicity of other people of other faiths and walks of life whose faith would preclude them from even waiting to know. What gets in the way on any path we tread is doubt, second-guessing, and needing to make ourselves feel we are in the “right” by boxing others into the “wrong.”
Visiting Amish country sent me a clear message: we don’t need to all be Amish. We simply need to be true to who we are. That is the lesson that remains with me, along with an occasional craving for shoo-fly pie.