The fields are ruined, the ground is dried up; the grain is
destroyed, the new wine is dried up, the olive oil fails.
It’s like I wrote before, a few blogs back. It’s been a different kind of spring, this year. I had a whole lot of problems, with my heart running wild on different levels. I slogged through that. And then, right as that situation was stabilizing, Mom passed away. Seemed like it was one thing after another, rolling right on in, this spring. And I tried to speak it, tried to write it, as I was walking down that road.
I’ve settled down a good deal, lately. Just kind of settled into a new routine. You can’t change what happened. It all was what it was. And now, it all is what it is. I’m in a different place. And it just takes a while, for me to process new realities, I think. The reality that I am no longer young, and that I have issues with my heart. I used to say, when people asked me how old I was. I don’t feel my age. But now I do. I feel my age, older even, sometimes. And I do get through all that processing of new places, eventually. It just takes me a lot longer than it does most people. Maybe it’s because I insist on going all the way down to the bottom of things, insist on dredging out every last emotion, and explore the deepest and darkest crevices of every cave. That’s the only place the really intense writing comes from, I’ve claimed. A cave. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for all writers, but I think it is for me.
And the strange spring moved right on into a very busy summer at work. June was one of our busiest months, ever, in the history of Graber Supply. We moved out a lot of product. It’s a job, to dispatch all that stuff. I scheduled and fretted and moved the loads about, to get them all delivered. It was a hectic month. It’s always good to be real busy in your life, when you’re coming out of a strange spring like the one I just came out of.
You’ll get yanked around, though, if you go feeling sorry for yourself about how tough your life is. You will. Something will come along to show you how good you have it. And something different came down earlier this week, something that gave me a whole new perspective on a whole lot of things. It was around mid-day, just after lunch time, and the office was pretty sparsely staffed. The phone call came in, and Rosita beeped me. “It’s someone from Maryland who wants a quote on a building,” she said. OK, I said. And she connected the call over. This is Ira. Can I help you?
And the caller’s voice was different, right from the first word. Kind of hesitant, kind of quiet and deflated. He was from southern Maryland. He wanted a quote on a new garage. Could I help him? Of course, I said. What size are you thinking of? And we talked it through, the size that he wanted. A pretty standard garage, with three Overhead doors on front. He wanted it to look good, the building. Overhangs. Wainscoting. A cupola with a weathervane. And after we had talked that through, I asked for his information. Name. Location. Is this a replacement garage?
And in a tired and heavy voice, he told me. He was burning brush last week, and went inside his house to cool off. It was windy out, and the burning brush blew over to his detached garage, and it started burning. The fire trucks arrived, four of them, but the firemen could get only one water hose to work. (I think he was pretty far back in the sticks, from the sound of that.) So the fire jumped over to his house and burned it to the ground. He lost everything, except his dog and a few pieces of this and that.
And right there, you have a choice, when you’re talking to a total stranger and he tells you a story like that. You can make small noises of sympathy. Tell him you’re sorry, and that you’ll get that quote right out to him. Or you can engage. I didn’t really feel like engaging. I was tired. I was busy. It was the early afternoon stretch, when you always feel like taking a nap. But still. Something made me pause. Talk to the man. He’s not in a good place. He’s on a hard road. I felt bad for him. That’s a given. But you can feel bad for a person, especially a total stranger, and just walk on. I decided not to. So I asked him.
I’m sorry about the fire. Did anyone get hurt? “No,” he said. “It was just me and my dog in the house. He sensed something was wrong, his hackles rose up. So I walked outside to check, and there the garage was on fire.” There was a lot of regret in his voice. He didn’t say it, but I could feel it in him. If only he’d kept a better eye on that fire. If only he hadn’t been so stupid…if only.
It felt so alone, his voice. I asked him. Do you have family? A slight pause. “I have one grown son in the area. I just got divorced last October.” One grown son, in the area. What does that mean? Is that son with you, around you? And you divorced just last October? I wonder who initiated that. I bet it wasn’t you. I think you’re still hurting pretty deeply from that. You’d have to be, it’s still so close. I didn’t ask those questions. Didn’t make those comments. But they pulsed through my mind as we talked. This guy was hurting, here. Real hurt. That’s what he was going through.
The man continued. “And last night I hit a deer with my car,” he said, tiredly. “I’m wondering when it’s all going to stop.”
I hunched back a bit. What can you even say to a guy going through all that? What can you ever say to a person walking a road like that, that won’t just sound trite? But the question came, I’m not sure from where inside me. Do you have support around you? I asked. “Yes,” he said. “From people I don’t even know, some of them are church people.” And it was about as I’d figured. He doesn’t have a lot of people around him. He doesn’t have much of a support structure. He’s pretty much alone.
I sure am sorry to hear all that, I said. “Well, the insurance company has been very good, so far, at least,” he said. “It’s not like I won’t get reimbursed. I’m staying in a real nice motel, and they’re paying for that.” But his voice was heavy. I figured he was probably a little older than me, from how he came across. I have no way of knowing that. But his house, his castle, and all the little details he had accumulated in his life, the record of who he was, all that was gone. And he kept on talking.
“I sure hope that one day God will let me understand why all this is happening,” he said. “Everything happens for a reason.” Yeah, I guess, I said. I didn’t tell him, because it wouldn’t have been right to tell him. Because of the hard road he was on. Struggling to make some sense of what all was going on. So I didn’t say it. But I don’t believe that everything that happens has to have a reason.
You can just be walking along all blithe and happy, like this guy was. He obviously loved his home and took pride in it. He was just out there, cleaning up a bit, and burning some brush. It was a hot day. So he walked inside to cool down in the air conditioning. And then he got clobbered. His garage caught fire. And then his house. And it all burned down to the ground, all that he treasured in his life. The material things, I mean. It all burned down. He lost pretty much everything he owned. And no insurance company’s ever gonna get his stuff back, I don’t care how much money they pay him. Totally random, I think, is what all that was. Just crap that comes at you in real life.
“You can’t take it with you when you go, anyway,” he said, as we were winding down. “I never saw a hearse pulling a U Haul trailer. Have you?” Nope, I said. I totally agree with that. You ain’t taking nothing with you when you go. None of us are. Well, hey, I’ll get that quote out to you in the next few days. “Great,” he said. “I just don’t know which way I’ll go. I just don’t know. I may just get a whole new place. The insurance people are telling me I have that option. But that spot where my home was is just so beautiful.” Yeah, I said. I’m sure it is. It was your home.
He had one more thing to tell me. Or ask of me. “If you think about it, say a prayer for me,” he said. Oh, I absolutely will do that, I said. I will do that. He thanked me. And we hung up.
I thought about the guy, later. Actually, I’ve been thinking about him a lot. I’ve seen some tough times in my life. I think most people have. But I’ve sure never been through anything like that, losing all you got, and not really having anyone there around you. I’ve been close to destitute a few times, way back in my wild running around days. But even then, I never lost everything I owned. And I always had a safe haven to return to, if the worst came to worst. Well, a safe haven with a lot of stringent conditions. But still. A safe place.
And a couple of things came to me, thinking about it all. Not that I got any explicit moral lessons, here. Just some loosely connected thoughts, and maybe a bunny trail or two. Like I said, I don’t believe everything has to happen for a reason. Not to where it’ll ever make any sense to you, anyway. Life is life, and a whole lot of it comes at you completely randomly. You walk through it the best you can, and when a tough road comes at you, you just slog on. You’ll get through it. You will, if you keep walking. I can tell you that, from where all I’ve been. And I’ve been down some real tough roads, of every imaginable type.
It’s a big mistake, too, to believe that just because you’re a Christian, bad things won’t come at you. If you actually believe that, you are severely deluded. I don’t know any better way to tell you. Bad things will come at you, even if you are a Christian. Maybe more than would come if you weren’t. Not saying that last point is always true. But it sure can be.
I’ve seen it so many times, in so many places. Where Christians are always acting so giddily happy and upbeat, and claiming to be so blessed, they can’t hardly stand it. The Lord is so good, they gush. Well, yes. He is. He absolutely is. And He’s always in control. Of everything. Everything that happens around you. Everything that happens to you.
But don’t pretend He protects you from bad stuff hitting you upside the head. Don’t pretend you don’t have your struggles. Don’t pretend you got victory in all areas of your life. Don’t pretend you are any better than the drunk, passed out in the gutter. You’re not. Your heart is just as depraved as you’re judging his to be. Maybe more. Don’t put that façade out, to your church world or to the world outside you. It won’t work. It’ll all catch up with you and blow up, at some point. It just will.
I’ve said it before. I guess I’ll say it again. Talking to Christians, here. We’ve all got our own idols. You got yours. I got mine. And in the end, those idols will be ripped from us, if we don’t get rid of them on our own. They will be. By death, finally, if by nothing else. You will stand alone, and you will stand with nothing that you bring to the table to prove how good you were, how good and holy a life you lived. You will stand with nothing. Nothing, but the pure and undeserved gift of being an adopted child of God, covered by Christ’s blood.
All that said, I will say this, too. The guy who called the other day was struggling along on a far tougher road than any I have ever walked. I’m thinking the next time I feel like grumbling about the hard road I’m on, I’m gonna look back and remember the one he’s walking right now.
And I will be grateful to be right where I am.
OK. A few things to close out with. I probably won’t be posting again for around four weeks or so. And no, it’s not because I’m all immersed in “serious writing,” or anything like that. I’m taking a little trip, leaving in right about two weeks. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for a long time.
It’s the second Bloomfield ex-Amish reunion (they call it the Bloomfield Amish Reunion, for some strange reason, but it’s not my job to argue semantics), and it’ll be held at a park just outside Bloomfield on Saturday, July 19th. An all-day affair, just hanging out. Anyone who was ever Amish in Bloomfield, doesn’t matter when, or if you still are Amish, is invited. They had the first such reunion back in 2010, right when I was in the trenches, getting my book cranked out. I told them then. There’s only one thing that could keep me from attending, and that one thing is the fact that I got a book to write. But I’ll get there next time. I promise. That next time is coming right up.
I’m looking forward to it a lot. I have, for a long time. Looking forward to connecting with a lot of old friends from way back, and also to making new friends. A lot of people grew up there after I left, and I don’t even know most of those that left after I did.
Four of the original “gang of six” plan to be there. I think so, anyway. Marvin, Rudy, Vern, and me. Of course, Mervin still lives around there. He’s the only one from the original gang that remains Amish. He’s married, with a slew of children. Thirteen, I think. And he was ordained a preacher some years ago. I don’t know if we’ll stop by to see him, the four of us. But I’m sure we’ll drive around and visit our old haunts together. And we’ll recall and rehash a lot of those old stories.
I won’t be hanging around the Bloomfield Amish much, I don’t think. Sure, I’ll stop by at Titus and Ruth’s home a few times. I’m always welcome there. Not saying I wouldn’t be welcome in at least a few other homes. But it’s not worth the hassle of figuring out which ones. And I’ll be stopping by in West Grove to see Mrs. C and any of her family that’s around. Her daughter, Linda, runs the café now, in West Grove. It’s just down around the bend from where the old original Chuck’s Café was. I’ll stop by there, to drink some coffee. And to see if anyone these days even recognizes me. I won’t be surprised, if no one does, not from the locals hanging out. It’s been a long time, since I’ve been a regular anywhere in that area. But those are always important, those old connection points. Those old friendships.
The following week, I’ll be heading south to Missouri to look up a few people. Just meandering, I guess. It’s been too long since I’ve meandered. So it’ll probably be the week after that, the week I get back home, before you’ll see any more writing from me on this blog. I’m looking forward to the journey, and to telling you all about it.
“A wannabe really is clueless on the real deal, only seeing what he wants
to…But you can tell the wannabe what he needs to know; we don’t all have to
go through deep waters to learn that [if we do] we will get very, very wet.”
-Excerpt from an email message
I don’t know what it is. I guess I’m just a magnet for certain things. And no, I’m not grumbling about the emails that still trickle in now and then from readers. I appreciate the time people take to write, and tell me they read my book. They had to be a little affected, or they wouldn’t have gone to all that bother. It’s when they take things a little further, as has happened a couple of times just lately, that I sigh and shake my head. It’s when they tell me. “I really feel like I want to join the Amish. I’m serious. Can you help me? Is there anyone you know that you could connect me with?” And I sigh a little bit more. Some of my closest friends around here are Amish. But I’m pretty protective of those relationships. I sure don’t like to bug my friends with a load of unnecessary baggage. So no, I think to myself. I don’t know of anyone who could help you become Amish. I don’t usually bother even responding to requests like that. It wouldn’t get anyone to any good place, anywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Amish are as popular as they are, in the current publishing climate. That popularity is a big part of the reason that the Tyndale people ever gave me a shot at my book. Absent that, I don’t kid myself. The book would never have been written, because it never would have gotten anywhere. So I’m grateful that people like to read about the Amish, whether it’s fiction or memoir. (I think that whole market’s getting pretty saturated, though. I can’t see it holding on to such intensity for much longer. But maybe I’m wrong.) And I’m not going to scold anyone who takes it to the next level, and wants to join. But I’d like to have a little chat with such people, right here.
First off, I’ll tell you. You have no idea of what you’re asking. You really, really don’t. It’s not the kind of culture that adopts outsiders well. There is little mechanism for such a thing. And what about the language? How are you going to learn that? You have to be born into the culture. Yeah, I know. It all looks too good to be true, so idyllic and peaceful from the outside. You marvel, that people can even exist in today’s world, in such a setting. But they’re just people, too. Flawed, like the people in your own world are. You yearn for something more, something deeper, in your life. Which is fine, to yearn for a more peaceful place. But coming from where I came from, I can tell you that some of those “peaceful places” look a lot more peaceful from outside than they actually are when you’re in them. I mean, I just wrote a book about all that. And if you’re contacting me, you’ve probably read that book.
They’ve tried it by the dozens, people have, over the years. To join from the outside. I’ve always been fascinated that anyone would even want to. And I think it takes a certain type of personality, to get so far as to even try. I saw a good many of those people up in Aylmer, back when I was a child. Somehow, that community was a magnet for such seekers. It probably had something to do with Family Life, and those other magazines they were cranking out up there. Here we are, speaking grave noble proclamations. Here’s the shining city on a hill. Here we are, living right before God. And they came from all over, it seemed, the eager wannabes. They sure brought some color and flavor into our rather drab and provincial lives. We didn’t really treat them all that politely. But they were fun to hang around with and talk to. Bottom line is this, though. Of all those characters that came slogging through, all starry-eyed and eager, of all those seekers, not one of them made it. At least not that I know of.
Oh, except one man did. But he came around way early on, when I was pretty young. He wasn’t with the crowds of others, and he wasn’t that welcoming to those others. That one success was David Luthy, the eminent Amish historian. He set his roots, there in Aylmer. Married. Raised a family. And there he remains today. But he was a rare, rare, and I mean rare exception to the rule. I’ve always thought he made it because he came from a hard-core Catholic background. I’ve said it before. Amish guilt and Catholic guilt are pretty much twin models. He was (and is) highly educated, with a Master’s Degree from Notre Dame. And he was figuring to enter the priesthood, when he heard about the Amish. He decided to check them out. Their simple structured lifestyle appealed to something deep inside him. And he joined, up there in Aylmer. Or maybe it was northern Indiana, where he first touched base. He learned to speak the language, pretty fluently. He was a staff writer for Family Life, when Dad and Joseph Stoll launched that magazine. And he wrote all kinds of little moral stories. I remember one such story about the “little places,” in which he decried that the Amish were moving away from their legacy of farming. I guess he saw that happening in northern Indiana, where they work in factories a lot.
I think he grasped at a perfect concept of what he thought the Amish should be, should look like. They shouldn’t have little places. They should have farms. Like so many others who try to join from the outside, he was more Amish than the Amish. And in the end, despite all he wrote about the glories of working the land as s family, of seedtime and harvest and the beauty of it all, he never was a farmer. Which I completely understand. I’m not a farmer, either. He ended up on a “little place,” himself. And from that little place, the man produced an enormous body of first-class, historical writing.
Since those years, David Luthy has done some of the finest quality research about the history of the Amish. And he’s produced some of the finest writing ever done on that subject. It seemed like it was just destined to be, that a man like him would come along, and preserve much of the history of a culture he wasn’t born into. It’s kind of startling and surreal, when I think about it. I certainly respect the man a lot, and I respect all he got accomplished.
But I still don’t understand why he did what he did, in joining the Amish. And I’ll say it one more time. He was a rare exception. For every success story like his, there were a hundred wannabes that crashed and burned. And burned out.
Years and years ago, right about the time I was fixing to go to college, David Luthy said something to my father that Dad never forgot. “I always thought Ira might want to move here and help me with my writing and research,” he said. Or something along those lines. I don’t know if he actually meant it, but Dad latched right on. And he seriously asked me, the next time I came around. “Wouldn’t you consider taking up David’s offer? You’d be accomplishing something real and lasting, if you worked with him. He told me you’d be welcome.” I never even remotely considered the offer, although I was flattered that David thought highly enough of me to mention something. I’m not a research kind of guy, I told Dad. I’d get bored to death, trying to force myself into a role like that. Besides, I don’t want to be Amish. It took me years, to break away. Why would I ever want to walk right back into that mess? Dad never quite let it go, though. Pretty much every time he saw me after that, for years, he brought it up. “David Luthy wanted you to come and write for him. That was a real opportunity for you. I sure wish you would have gone” That’s fine, I’m honored, I always said. I don’t regret it, though. I guess that’s what’s going to have to count, in my life.
So David Luthy made it, to join the Amish for good. And Sam Johnson made it, too, there in northern Indiana, about the time I came wandering into his life, a desperate and despairing man. I’m really glad Sam stuck it out. He was there for me, right when I needed someone like that the most.
But I think of all those other poor souls who came wandering by, all those years ago. I can’t remember their names, and their faces are blurred, in my memory. But they came. They came and tried to follow their visions of living the peaceful Amish life. Poor lost souls, is what they were. I feel nothing but pity for them. They came from families, somewhere. And when it all blew up, when none of their dreams worked out, when they left, they went somewhere. I wonder sometimes where they are today. And how all their lives turned out. Here’s what I want to say about those people. They all spent a lot of effort, a lot of time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, to follow their vision of joining the Amish. A lot. And eventually, they all drifted off, deeply disillusioned. Sure, you can chalk it up to “just having an experience.” They certainly had one that most people never get to see. But still. All those years, all that toil, and all for nothing, in the end.
And recently I heard from such a person, someone who had tried to join the Amish. She sent an intelligent and reflective email. She’d read my book, and wanted to tell me she nodded her head a lot while reading. The stuff I wrote was real. And she told me. She and her husband had joined the Amish in an eastern state. They never felt as if they were totally accepted. She didn’t go into a lot of detail, but I could see that happening, not being accepted. And then they spun over to the Eastern Mennonites. I don’t know much about Plain Mennonite groups, but the Easterns are among the strictest, at least around here. Nice people, don’t get me wrong. You just don’t want to try to join them. Anyway, that didn’t work, either, the woman wrote. At some point, then, they drifted back to the outside world. And that’s where they live today. And she told me, in conclusion. “Now we are back to being Christians.”
And so they looped around, this woman and her husband. I don’t know if they have children, she never said. And I’ve thought a lot about her statement, there. Now we are back to being Christians. Isn’t that what it’s all about, in the end? To be calm wherever you are, to follow Christ wherever you are? She did say they had some good experiences as well, among the Plain groups. And met some very nice people. I’m sure they did. But it seems to me there was a lot of wading through deep waters, too, and a lot of lost time. You don’t ever get that lost time back. It just seems like there was so much wasted effort. And for what, in the end? For what?
So if you are a “wannabe” Amish, let me tell you as frankly as I can. It won’t work, to join. It will not work. Well, I guess it could, because it has. But the odds are astronomical that it won’t. And it won’t be anything like what you’re envisioning, joining. It won’t be utopia. There is no utopia on this earth. It’s not the kind of culture that adopts outsiders well. If you come from the outside, you’ll always be an outsider. There is no mechanism for such a thing, to deal with people like you. That doesn’t make you a bad person, or anything like that. It just makes the path you are considering pretty much impossible. You have to be born into the culture. You have to be born into its ways. You have to be born into its language.
And there’s one more thing that bugs me just a little bit. I’d like to ask those who write me, looking for a connection to the Amish. Did you actually read my book? If you did, how did you not catch the part where I almost lost my mind, breaking away? It’s about as hard to break away as it is to join from the outside, at least for some of us it was. How did you miss all that turmoil, all that tortured anguish, all that frantic running, all that grief? And if you didn’t miss that, why in the world do you think a guy who went through all that would ever want to tell you how to get to where he came from?
And no, I’m not scolding. I’m just asking.
A few closing thoughts on a few things. July 4th is coming right up. Flag waving, rah-rah, we’re-the-greatest-country-on-the-face-of-the-earth Day. I think most of you know how I feel about all that. I won’t be waving any flags. But I’ll be having fun with friends, cooking out and hanging out. And I probably won’t post that Friday. I’m thinking I won’t. Of course, when the pressure’s not on, something might just come on its own. If it does, I’ll post. If not, I won’t. We’ll see.
I haven’t gone off on a tangent like this for a while. Had to wait for a trigger, I guess. But here goes. The state does nothing but impede the free market. It’s a vile and evil entity, and it will always be vile and evil. The state has not one redeeming quality. Not one. It will always gorge itself on innocent blood until it implodes under its own weight. Then it starts the process all over, and repeats. That’s just how it’s been, through all of history.
And New York is a vile and evil state. I had a wide load to deliver in upstate New York, scheduled to leave this past Monday morning. We ordered the wide load permits last week. On the Friday afternoon before, around 4 o’clock, the permit service people we deal with called Rosita. There are two counties up there that demand special permits, to take wide loads through. And until those county permits are issued, the state permits will be held back.
It was all such a mess, over the weekend. I stressed about it a good deal. The two counties require 24-48 hours, to get their permits signed. So the load was backed off. On Tuesday morning, my driver headed out to a truck stop in New Jersey, as far as his permits would take him. And there he sat, waiting until the New York permits were faxed to him. He finally got to his drop point around mid afternoon, to unload. He got home real late that night. Meanwhile, the guys who planned to start the building on Monday had their schedule yanked back for two whole days. All because of the state. All because of a piece of paper you have to pay for, to get to where you’re going. It’s like paying thieving warlords, to cross their territories. No, it IS paying thieving warlords. And it’s all one big racket.
A while ago, I had some correspondence with a Facebook friend I’ve never met. She comes from a Plain Beachy Amish background out in the Midwest, from what I can tell. She’s broken totally away, like I have from my Amish past, as least in dress and lifestyle. I think she’s a little closer to her experience than I am to mine. She left more recently.
I forget what my post was about, on Facebook. But in her comments, my friend told me she had spoken recently with a cousin who still is with the Beachys, somewhere out in the Midwest. And that person told her. “We don’t like Ira Wagler, because he just writes what he wants. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.”
I’ve thought some about that comment since. And I gotta say. It’s probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received about my writing. I can’t think of one that pleased me more. I mean, if some people choose not to like me because I don’t care what they think, how much freer can you get than that? Especially if I don’t even know who they are. I choose not to walk in “fear of man.” I never try to be deliberately offensive, of course. But I write what I want to write. I don’t much care what you think about it, one way or the other, as far as agreeing with me. I guess I care a little bit about whether or not you read my stuff. I want as many readers as I can get. But in the end, even that doesn’t matter much, not when it comes to writing what I have to say. I’ll write it anyway.
If I wrote all perturbed about what my readers will or won’t think, about whether or not they will like me, especially readers from Plain places, I wouldn’t get a whole lot of writing done. I never would have. I’d be too paralyzed.
It’s one of my biggest passions. Freedom. I will walk free, when it comes to speaking what I have to say. And it’s a beautiful thing, to write free like that.