Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not
know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come
into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
I didn’t feel it coming on, much, as last Saturday ended. I was up late, as usual, getting a little writing done. (Yep, I’ve been getting a little random writing done, lately. One of these days (a vague term that could mean years), I’ll have a few dozen pages to throw out there on the market, to see if some publisher wants what I got. It’s all coming. It’s just a matter of time.) And when midnight came, it hit me. It’s a new day. Today is Mother’s Day. And yeah, it was way late, and yeah, I’d had a few scotches. Maybe that’s what made me all melancholy and reflective, all of sudden, at that hour. And I went back in my head and looked at it, what all Mother’s Day was to me, from the time I was a child.
Childhood. What was that day like, way back then? As I recall, it was a day we recognized. I won’t say we celebrated much. But we recognized it, in my Amish world. And I want to be real careful, here. The Amish world I knew as a child is no longer the same world today that it was back then. Not in the places where I grew up, not in the communities of Aylmer and Bloomfield. I look back, and my memories are what they are. Coming out of all that happened when it happened. Today, I think, both Aylmer and Bloomfield are much more relaxed about a lot of things. I can’t speak firsthand, about all that much of it, at least not the living of it. I know I am certainly welcomed in a few places that used to be pretty hostile, years ago. There’s more communication, I think, at least at some levels. And I hear it told, about how it is now, how things have changed a lot, in a lot of ways. And I try to imagine what it might have looked like, had today’s Amish world been the Amish world I knew. It’s impossible, of course. So I can only speak from what I saw, back decades ago. I can only speak from where I lived and what I felt.
And they observed Mother’s Day, there in the Aylmer of my childhood. A special day for Mom. I’m trying to get a grip on my memories, of how that all happened. I can’t quite say for sure, but I seem to remember we made little homemade cards for our Moms at school. Little sheets of white typing paper, folded in half a few times, to make it card-sized. And a drawing or two, always roughly colored by a child’s hand. Happy Mother’s Day. I love you, Mom. We gave her those little shreds of paper, with no real concept of what we were saying. No real grasp of the meaning of our words. We could write the words. I love you. But we never heard those words spoken, in our world. There was a big void there, between what you could write and what you could speak. I’m talking from a child’s perspective, here. The Amish language is a simple language, and it doesn’t have a whole lot of expressive “love” words in it. And it’s only much later that you can see that void, and make some sense of it all.
And the years flow by when you are a child, and those years bring what they bring. It never was that big a deal to me, growing up, Mother’s Day. Mom always smiled and made like it wasn’t necessary at all, that we would honor her. And the thing of it is, once I grew out of my childhood world, I didn’t honor her much at all. I chose to walk my own roads. And I chose to leave, in the middle of the night, chose to walk away from all the Amish were or meant to me. You do that, from where I was, and you don’t realize how deeply you are hurting the people who love you the most. And especially, you don’t realize what you’re doing to your Mom.
And no, I’m not talking about guilt here. And I’m not talking about forgiveness. It’s just that certain things, or certain dates, like Mother’s Day, can trigger a river of thoughts, can make me pause, and look back on it all. And it’s just sadness, mostly, that I feel, reliving some of those scenes. You focus on where you want to walk, when you’re a troubled youth, like I was. And you don’t think a whole lot about it, the ripples you cause in the lives of others. And in that period of my life, I can’t remember that I ever acknowledged Mother’s Day, to Mom. I probably did, offhand like, when I was around. And it was all a part of the deep pain I inflicted on her. Mom was just Mom. I didn’t want to hurt her. But it didn’t matter that much, if I did. In retrospect, all I really wanted was out.
And that’s the second stage of my Mother’s Day memories. Now, you fast-forward a little bit, from those years. To a time when all that dust had settled some. To a time when me and Nathan had left Bloomfield and the Amish for good. We were both a little skittish, back then, from all we had gone through, breaking away. But even from the first years, there were two things we did every year, like clockwork. We went home for Christmas, every Christmas, if only for a few days. And every year at Mother’s Day, we sent a bouquet of roses to our Mother.
And, yeah, I gotta say. It was Nathan who always remembered, who brought it up to me, every year, a month or so out. In July, it was Mom’s birthday. And Nathan always called me. July is coming up. Make sure you send her a card. And every year, too, he called me in May. It’s Mother’s Day, next weekend. I’ll order the flowers delivered. I’ll have them put both our names on the tag. And I always answered Nathan. Yes. Put my name on, too. I’ll pay you for my share, next time I see you.
It was all a little strange, back then, when it came to the Amish and flowers. And I want to be real careful here, like I said. It might be different today, in Bloomfield, and probably is. But back then, it all was what it was. When we went home for Christmas every year, we always took Mom a special gift. The largest, reddest Poinsettia we could find, in any local store. We took Dad a gift, too. A box or two of chocolate covered cherries. And it was all OK, it seemed like, with the flower we brought to Mom. Maybe it’s because the Poinsettia was alive, in a pot. Because there’s something about dead, loud roses that seemed to not go over so well with Dad.
And this is how it was in the Amish world I came from. The preachers preached it many times. Not all of them preached that way, but enough of them did so you couldn’t help but hear it. And they spoke with all the authority the Amish code of discipline could instill in them. When a wayward, rebellious child gives flowers to his mother, that means the child is feeling guilty in his heart. That’s his only possible motive. And you think about that, what kind of a hard cold heart you’d have to have, to even claim such a thing. But claim it they did, that certain element of old time preachers in Bloomfield. It’s a hard core Amish platform, right there. Your children, the ones who left, the rebellious ones, those children will send you flowers, sure. But those flowers don’t really come from their hearts. If your son really felt that way, he’d come home and repent and behave. If your rebellious son sends you roses, just know the real reason he’s doing it. He’s feeling the guilt of all the wrong he’s done.
It was so simplistic, that teaching. And so deeply and brutally wounding. I look back at the world my Mother lived in, a bleak and hopeless world like that. And I simply admire her all the more for her unwavering strength in the face of all she endured in life. Sons who got up and left in the middle of the night, without word or warning. A husband who uprooted his family and moved around again and again, and kept her isolated from her own family, back in Daviess. I look at all that, and once again, I marvel. Not from guilt, but simply from deep sadness and pity that she was trapped in a culture that could be so cold and colorless as to forbid her sons to send her roses. Not that we listened that well. For a lot of years there, we sent her roses anyway, Nathan and me.
And for my father, too, well, it all just was what it was. Back then, he was a highly prominent man, a leading intellectual, a writer among his people. And hard-core, hard-core Amish. I’ve wondered sometimes, about all that. If he had relaxed a little, and not insisted so firmly and harshly that we all remain Amish, would more of his children be Amish today? There’s probably a pretty good possibility there might be. Not saying I would be. I just can’t live that way. But still. He was a hard-core defender of the faith, all the way. If you considered any other path, back then, you might as well concede that you’re going to hell. Because for anyone born Amish, there was no other path. That’s what Dad believed, that’s what he wrote, and that’s what he insisted on pressing into the lives and minds of his children.
And I remember when he approached me about those roses we were sending Mom. I remember very clearly. I was home to visit for a few days. It was summer, as I recall, so it must have been a flying trip I made home on my own. Nathan wasn’t with me. And Dad and I visited, just like we always did. And he got all stern, all of a sudden. It was like some sort of dark force just swept through him.
“I want you and Nathan to stop sending roses to Mom,” he said. The edge of his voice was flat and hard and harsh. “If you can’t come home and be obedient, as you know you should, you don’t need to be sending her things like that for Mother’s Day.”
I was mostly pretty deferential, to Dad, after I left home, and came back to visit. Don’t rock any boats. Try to keep things conversational, don’t get into any real serious arguments. But that day, when I heard those words from him, I simply gaped. And I got real mad. No, I got livid. And I lit into the man like I rarely have, before or since. No. I spoke in quiet rage. You are wrong. I reject what you are saying. How can you be all harsh like that? Don’t you even, ever tell me I can’t send flowers to Mom. Don’t you even do it. I reject what you are saying. It’s not right. It’s cold and hard and cruel. And you know it.
We left it at that, then. We settled back into normal, somehow. It was like a flame of stress flared up, then just kind of slunk away. Maybe we both knew what to expect from each other. I don’t know. I still seethed inside, at his words. But from here, today, I can say this. Dad was a product of his Amish roots, and he embraced those roots with all the passion any Wagler could ever muster. And from what all he had ever seen, Mom’s obedient sons didn’t bring her roses. They never did that when they lived at home. Or after they got married Amish. Roses were supposed to grow in a garden, not be given as tokens of guilt or love or anything else.
That’s how Dad saw it, I think. Her children only sent her roses from a worldly place. And it was a foreign thing to him, seeing the stems of cut flowers in a vase. We didn’t do that, where I grew up. We didn’t give gifts like that. Well, we did give roses to our girlfriends, I guess, now that I think of it. That was OK. But we never gave roses to our Moms. From where I am today, it’s all so strange and tangled up, what was allowed and what wasn’t.
Back to Dad, though, and who he was. It was a hard place, where he came from. I’ve often wondered what all the man saw, growing up, that I never knew he saw. Because he never spoke it, never wrote it. And for him, it seemed pretty natural, to forbid his sons to send flowers to their mother. It’s what the preachers preached. I see that now, how he would feel he needed to support that Amish church he had so stridently defended all his life. So he told me what he told me. And my instinctive reaction was natural. Don’t tell me I can’t send roses to my Mom. I don’t excuse him for what he told me, and I will not ever justify him for saying such a thing. Still, I’m struggling to understand just exactly where he was coming from.
There will never be any legitimate reason for any father to forbid his sons to send roses to their mother. Never. I don’t care what culture you’re in. And I don’t care where the sons are coming from. It’s a harsh and cold and cruel thing to do, by any standard. And you just don’t do it.
It all was what it was, back then, I guess. And it wasn’t all that long after Dad scolded me, a few years, maybe. Nathan told me, when we were talking. “You know Mom can’t enjoy the flowers we send her. She gets too nerved up.” And we talked about it, my brother and me. And I groaned. Good grief, I said. It’s not right, that we can’t. I mean, we are her sons. We can send her flowers, whenever we want to. “Yes, that’s true,” Nathan responded. “But what’s the good of sending her roses, when we know she can’t enjoy them? What’s the good of that?”
And eventually, we got it hashed out. We’d keep sending her cards, for Mother’s Day, and on her birthday. And a large red Poinsettia for Christmas would always be offered, each year. I remember how I kept thinking, and how I kept exclaiming. It’s just not right. We are her sons. We can send her roses if we want to. And Nathan’s calm answer. “It just is what it is. If we really care for her, we won’t deliberately cause her any more stress in her life than she already has.” And in the end, I simply could not argue with my brother’s words.
And from here, today, I hear a variation of what Nathan spoke, again. It is what it is. It was then. And it is now. We did what we could, in our rough and uncouth ways, to show Mom we loved her. We sent a strange literal message into her world. Cut roses, that would never bloom again. And when not sending her those roses reflected our love more clearly, well, that’s what we chose to do, too. We chose not to send her roses, then. It still haunts me a little bit, though, all of that. That little sliver of time was a barren desert in all our lives, I think.
From today, I look back on it all, and reflect. Mom never rejected our roses, even though they caused her more stress than they ever were worth. She never rejected our roses from the world she was trapped in. Because she loved us, as we were. She loved us from way deep inside, her two most wayward sons. And nothing is ever gonna take away that truth from the hearts of those sons.
But still. I have to say this, too, here at the end. A whole lot of things would be done a whole lot different, if life could be lived over. I know Dad would do things different, because he told me that more than a few times. He spoke those words to me, and his voice was heavy with regret.
And yeah, I would have done a whole lot of things a whole lot different, too, if I knew then what I know now.
OK. Moving on, then. There’s been something I’ve been wanting to mention. But I never could, quite, until it all came together. And I will say this. The past fourteen months have been real up and down for me. The darkness finally caught up with me in March. But the thing is, there was always lots of good stuff going on, too, in my life. It’s a tapestry, I guess. You live it all at the same time, but you can’t write it simultaneously. It’s impossible. You write what bubbles up, first. And the dark stuff is what bubbled up, mostly, in the past year.
Right there from the trenches, right when I was writing to all the world from all kinds of dark caves, right then, here came an email, oh, sometime early last year, I think. From my old friend in Germany. Dr. Sabrina Voeltz. She was just enquiring. She and her team were trying to get a conference going, next summer, in 2015. Plain People Conference. She wasn’t sure the funding was going to come through, but if it did, would I consider being a keynote speaker? They would pay my travel and lodging expenses, and give a stipend on top of all that. She would be honored. Sabrina said, if I would consider coming over to speak, if it all worked out. And she was fairly confident it would. No promises, of course. But she thought it might, from what she was seeing.
You get a “feeler” email like that from an old friend in the academic world in Germany, and you just gape a bit at the impossibility of it all. Umm. Let me think. I’m driving to work every day, in Big Blue. Talking and selling pole buildings. Which I very much enjoy doing. But a paid trip back to Leuphana University, in northern Deutschland, to give a talk about my book? Oh, you bet. I’d like that very much. You bet I would.
And I didn’t think that much about it last year, as life rolled at me. I had it in the back of my head, of course, that it might all happen. And a few months ago, I got the email from Sabrina. It’s on. The conference is on. Book your flight. We will reimburse you. You are a keynote speaker, along with Dr. Donald Kraybill. My good friend Dr. Kraybill is the preeminent Anabaptist scholar in academia today. I think he’s just now retiring from a long and distinguished career. And all I could think was, how in the world am I gonna be anywhere near as interesting as a learned man like that? A man who has stood and spoken to thousands and thousands of audiences. I haven’t done any such thing.
But it doesn’t matter, I guess. I am beyond honored, to be billed with Dr. Kraybill at any conference, anywhere in the world. And I’m looking forward to seeing my friend at the conference, too. I think what we have to say will complement each other.
And one last thing I just gotta say. The book took me to Germany, back in 2013. I wrote it all out, when it happened. It was one of the biggest adventures of my life. I’m thinking, though. The first time your book takes you to a foreign land like that, it might be (or most likely was) an aberration. The second time your book takes you to a place like that, well, I think I’m gonna start calling myself an international lecturer.
The journey of the book just keeps rolling right along. Down through some dark places and up over towering mountains. And every place between. I just keep walking. And I am grateful every day, for all of life.
The Times, They Are a-Changin’
—Bob Dylan, lyrics
I’m not quite sure how it all came up. It was the setting, probably. A Tuesday night, a week or so back. The Bible Study is still chugging along. Or trudging along, depending on how you look at it. Every Tuesday night (unless Reuben and I are both out of town, so there is no one there to host.), there’s a few people upstairs at the office, listening to a Tim Keller sermon. The official Bible Study. It’s still happening, there. And it’s always a real good thing. Sometimes it’s two people. Sometimes it’s six. The most ever was nine. So far, we’ve held on to the schedule. But it’s what happens afterward, that’s what triggered this little tale, right here.
Because after the Bible Study, every Tuesday night, I go to Vinola’s to hang out with the guys who won’t come to a Bible Study. The guys who will pretty much only hang out with you at the bar. Not across the board, that statement does not apply. A few times, a friend or three made it from the Bible Study to Vinola’s. But mostly it’s the guys who won’t.
I don’t judge them for it, the people who will meet me at the bar, but not at the Bible Study. Maybe it’s too far to drive. It’s about halfway across the county. Or maybe they just think they got better things to do, than to come and listen to Tim Keller preaching. Whatever. Their reasons are their own. But it’s developed into a new little tradition, between me and a few good friends. We’ll meet at Vinola’s around 8:30, every Tuesday night. And I try to make it, and always have, except once, last month, when I had a savage cold and could hardly breathe, let alone speak. That one time, I missed it. But I’ve been there, every other time I was around.
It’s a ragtag group of four to seven people, all guys. The most ever was around eight or nine, I think. It’s a real weird mixture, mostly. Not everyone is always there, every Tuesday. But the group loosely consists of a couple of atheists, a couple of agnostics, and a couple of Christians. And we always sit at the same table in the same back room. We have a few drinks, and maybe some finger food of some kind, or a bowl of soup. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, and we’re comfortable around each other. And nothing, I mean no subject matter, is off the table. We’ve discussed a lot of things over the past number of months. Including what it means to have faith that there is a God. Or what it looks like when you don’t.
We’ve gotten a little loud, more than a few times. Well, I think we’re always louder than your average group, don’t matter what we’re talking about. It’s totally OK, though. Because it’s always real, our talk. We speak it as we see it. And there’s a lot of clashing going on, sometimes. You have to have some faith in each other, when you’re talking in a group like that. And you go right down to the core of who you are and what you believe. It’s been tense, more than a few times, too. Oh, yes, it has been. There’s been some yelling going on, coming from every side. But in the end, so far, we have always managed to part ways in peace. At least, I think so.
It’s not always loud and boisterous like that, though. We get along pretty well, most often. And we discuss far more benign things, too, like genealogy, and the history and future of the Amish. All of us emerged from Plain blood, somewhere. And that’s what came up, the other Tuesday. Where are the Amish headed, as a culture? How long will they be able to hang onto their plainness, their identity? And I did what I always do, when that particular subject comes up. I reached into my shirt pocket, and plucked out my iPhone. This little dude right here, I said. This is going to have a major impact on Amish culture and identity. And I’m not talking down the road. I’m talking in the near future, certainly within a generation. And I’m talking major upheaval. There’s a big split coming, and it’s not that far away.
It’s kind of strange, when you look back on history. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Amish were not that different from the people around them in regular society. They looked about the same, dressed about the same as the English people around them. They had modern farming equipment, for the times. Back then, it was common for many English women to wear head coverings of some kind, so the Amish weren’t unique in that, either.
It was only when the automobile came along, and got affordable to the common man, it was then that the Amish made their fateful decision. A decision that would set them apart, both visually and in practice of lifestyle, from all the world around them. They would not drive a car. They would stick with the horse and buggy. At first, it wasn’t all that big a deal. Buggies and cars shared the road. Cars were the aberration. But after a generation or two, well, it wasn’t like that anymore. Buggies were the aberration. And the Amish stuck out. Big time. Cars were whizzing down the roads, all around them. But still, they insisted on keeping things like they’d always been. And as time passed, they were increasingly seen as odd and silly people. I mean, look at them. Plugging along, jamming up the roads, and you can’t see their buggies at night, what with those little lanterns they got shining weakly from one side or both. Talking way back, here. Except maybe for the Swartzentrubers. I think they’re still stuck, way back there.
But still, whatever level it was going on, the Amish persisted in being who they were. It was ingrained, by now, in the cultural mindset. They would not touch the unclean things of the world. Like cars and electricity and telephones and such. They would not do it.
I’ve said it before, I think. When I was a child, the Amish weren’t viewed as the high and holy pastoral people they are viewed as today. Nah. It was a far cry from that. There wasn’t a whole lot of adulation going on, about how beautiful and peaceful that lifestyle is. Back then, we were seen as second class citizens, pretty much. People looked at us all funny. Why are you dressed like that, and why are you driving a horse and buggy? None of it made any sense in that world, and there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy for any of it.
In my lifetime, though, that all changed. I saw it change. Change from scorn and derision to all kinds of lofty rhetoric about how peaceful the Amish live. I look at all that, a little cockeyed. I’ve been in both worlds. And I’m telling you. You can’t trust the praise, and you can’t trust the adulation of a fickle English world. You better not. Because that world is all about fame and the worship of fame. And I gotta say. The Amish haven’t trusted any adulation of a fickle English world. Not saying they don’t feel a little proud, when it gets too thick and gooey, the praise about how right they live. That’s just human. But whatever pride they might feel, you’ll never, never see it. They just plug along, like they always have. It doesn’t have to make sense to you, what they believe. They’ll believe it anyway. And they’ll be different, anyway. I’m most proud of that trait, of all the traits of my people.
And right along about when it all crested, the adulation of the Amish, right about then is when my book came stumbling out into the market. I look back on how that all happened, and I marvel more every day. It was just impossible. I was a total unknown. With not much of a platform at all. I’ve never worried much about “platform.” It’s just something that publishers tell their authors they better have. Go out there, all breathless, and tell the world. Come, and look at me. I’m a writer. I’ve always deeply and instinctively recoiled from how you have to be all aware of your platform. And how you have to keep hustling to increase your readership. You write. If what you wrote is worth reading, it’ll get read. It’s as simple as that. You don’t worry that much about whether you get published or not. Well, I fretted a little. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But to calm those worries, I went and posted a new blog now and then. Kept writing. Mostly, it’s like this, in the end. If you’re gonna write, you’ll write anyway. Whether the world will ever see much of anything you wrote makes no real difference. You’ll write anyway.
Well, that was a bunny trail, some of that. But this is my blog, so I guess I can go down whatever trails I want to. Getting back, to somewhere close to where I started from, here. We got to talking at Vinola’s about who the Amish have been, historically. They have been a culture (and no, I will not label them a cult) that has chosen to separate itself from much of the outside world. And I got no problem with that. Leave people alone, to believe what they want. I am very proud of my heritage. Very proud, especially when it comes to how implacably my people stand against the state, whenever they feel it necessary. There are very few groups around, large or small (and the Amish are a very small group) who have stood up to the government like the Amish have. The beautiful thing is, it doesn’t matter to them, if it makes any sense to anyone else or not. They will stand against any force. Quietly, yes. Meekly, yes. But persistently, always.
It’s pretty basic, how the Amish have traditionally separated themselves. No cars. No electricity. No telephones in the house, you have to have a little phone shack outside. And those three things have held up real consistent, for generations. It’s just who they were. People who don’t believe in owning any of those things. And for all anyone ever thought, it was just who they would always be. I don’t think there was ever any doubt about that, at least in the generation I’m in, and the one behind and before me. The thing is, each generation looks at the world it’s in, and imagines it will always be like that. And often, it’s true, for a few more generations. The world stays pretty much the same. And then, sometimes, some major changes come rocking along a lot faster than anyone could have imagined.
From today, I look back at the unclean things my friends and I latched onto, way back when we were running around. It was an ancient age, back then, I guess. It’s stuff you’d find in a time capsule, the contraband we had. Little transistor radios, with a strap, so you could hook it onto your wrist. That was the smallest thing in our arsenal. Then it was 8-track tapes, and 8-track tape players. Big, bulky stuff. And later, it was the early version of a boom box. A large radio. And then cassette players. We adapted all this stuff to where it could be hooked up to the twelve-volt batteries in our buggies. It was all stuff that was real hard to hide, too.
And I wrote a scene about all that in the book, where Dad got up real early one morning after I got home real late. And he snuck a feed bag with a bunch of 8-track tapes right out of the back of my buggy. I should have hidden that bag in the hayloft the night before, when I got home. I should have. I kicked myself a hundred times, later. But, that night, I was just too tired. So I didn’t.
Kind of a funny little aside, here. When I was up in Aylmer to see Dad last fall, we got to talking about a few scenes in the book. And I asked him about those tapes in that feed bag. Do you remember that? I asked. I’ve always wondered. What did you do with those tapes? Burn them? I always figured you incinerated them in the water heater stove.
Looking back, it was almost surreal, that we could even have that conversation. It was like two old enemy warriors, almost fondly discussing the battlefields of long ago. He sat there and stroked his long gray beard and chuckled. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, so I walked down to Joseph’s house. It was early in the morning, just after daybreak. I told him what was going on, and how I have this bag full of something I found in Ira’s buggy. I don’t know what to do with this.”
And he claimed Joseph told him. “Just leave the bag here. I’ll take care of it.” So Dad left the bag and began walking back up the lane to our home. And he told me. “I turned and looked back, and there was all this hot black smoke coming out of the chimney of Joseph’s house. Something was really burning, I thought to myself. So I guess Joseph took care of that bag for me.”
I laughed. And he laughed, too. Well, those are some small details that sure are interesting, I said. I never knew that. I guess I’ll have to ask Joseph about all that, next time I see him. Which I completely forgot to do, when I saw him in Pinecraft in February.
There is a point to that little bunny trail. Well, I think so, anyway. We had all that bulky stuff that was hard to hide and easy to smash and burn, if we got caught. If it were today, I’d have an iPod. A little sliver of technology not much bigger than a credit card. And that iPod would store more songs than I could have hidden in 8-track tapes in five hundred paper feed bags. Dad would have lit a real bonfire with five hundred feed bags. Maybe there would have been a neighborhood weenie roast, or some such thing. What I’m saying is this. That’s the technology, the iPod, that young Amish kids have today. So affordable, so easy to hide. And so much harder to give up, when the time comes to “straighten up and settle down.”
There’s another little item out there that will affect the Amish a lot more than just a simple iPod. And that’s the smartphone. A cell phone, yeah, which helps everyone stay connected. But so much more than that. With a smartphone, you’re not only connected to your buddies. You’re connected to the World Wide Web. The internet. And Facebook. You get that phone as a young Amish teenager, and you are connected to the whole world on a computer more powerful than anything on the market even ten years ago. Against such a vast ocean of temptations, who can expect any Amish youth to ever really give it up and settle into the culture? To “straighten up and settle down?”
Some have the strength to give it all up, when the time comes, I guess. At least, so far. But a lot of others don’t. The thing is, a lot of Amish youth are not giving up that technology, when they join the church. I’m talking about Lancaster County, here. I can’t speak first hand of other communities, because I don’t have that much exposure to any Amish place other than Lancaster. I’ll take a bet, though, that what I’m seeing here is happening to some degree in a lot of Amish settlements that have no clue as to what’s about to hit them. Around here, I’m connected to the Amish world. I know what’s going on. And I’m telling you, there is some serious upheaval coming in that Amish world, sometime before too long. There just is.
Here, in Lancaster County, the cell phone (and smartphone) has pretty much been accepted as the norm by the business community. There’s been some muttering and some movement among some Bishops, to clamp down on it all. But that horse left the barn long ago. You gotta be connected, to compete. I can talk, firsthand, too, about the cell phones. I work with Amish crews, at Graber. There has to be a cell phone, somewhere, for me to connect with them when I need to. And for them to connect with me. That’s all there is to it, these days.
Don’t get me wrong, here. I got no bones to pick, with the Amish. I’m not hostile to them. I’m simply observing, and, yes, I’m simply fascinated. But there’s no moral equation involved, for me. What happens will happen. The culture will move and morph when and where it will. And I’m fine, with whatever happens, and whatever the Amish end up being.
It’s just how it is. I’m not criticizing. I’m not moaning. I’m just observing. And this is how I see it. If you’re Amish, and if you’re old enough, you can probably withstand the pressures. If you’re a businessman, married, with a family, you can hang on and make sense of who you are and what you are. But I’m talking about the youth. There will come a day when they will look at that smartphone in one hand, and the horse and buggy they’re driving down the road, on the other. And it’s going to hit them, or at least a whole lot of them. That horse and buggy just don’t make a whole lot of sense. Not when you’re connected to the whole world. It just can’t. And it won’t.
There’s some major upheaval coming. I’m not saying the Amish will disappear. There will always be a remnant that will hold back. At least for a few more generations, and even then, there will be a remnant that will hold back again. Eventually, though, throughout history, almost all cultural groups get absorbed into the mainstream around them.
And with the lure of today’s technology, the Amish are as close to that precipice as they’ve ever been.
A few thoughts, here, in closing. This week, last year, Mom was released from all her pain on this earth. They told me how it all came down, that Monday morning. As the sun rose, her breath of life faded, then expired, and she left this world for a far better place. I look back on it all, and I remember vividly the mixture of emotions that flooded me that moment. The feeling of deep relief, that her silent suffering in the long dark night of Alzheimer’s was finally, finally over. And the feeling of almost indescribable loss, that the only mother I’ll ever have was gone. It seems so close, in some ways, that morning, a year ago. And in some ways, it seems so far away.
She suffered so much. And it took her so long, to get to where she could leave us for a better place. I remember how I raged at God, the night before. Why are You keeping her here, on this earth? You know she loved and served and suffered all her life. You know that. Just take her home.
I don’t think my rage had anything to do with it. But the very next morning my mother was called home. And I think back to how we all came together, the family clan. From all over. To mourn her passing. To grieve the loss of who she was. And for me and Nathan, well, it was the two sons who hurt her the most, those two sons placed roses on her grave, after everyone had cleared out. It wasn’t something we had long planned ahead. It just happened.
And it settled in me this week, a little bit, the heaviness of it all. If I could, I would tell my mother, face to face, how sorry I am at how senselessly and how callously I hurt her, way back in my youth. It’s neither here nor there, now, I know. But still, this week, I felt that sorrow seeping in again. And I know she knows what I would tell her, from where she is.
We all mourned her, back a year ago. The matriarch of the clan. Dad mourned her, too. He seemed so lost, without his life’s mate. His wife, my mother, a woman he took for granted almost all her life. Until he saw she was leaving him, slipping away. He didn’t take her for granted then. No. He tried to keep her with him, for as long as he could. It was so heart-rending to watch. I don’t know if he ever quite realized what he had squandered. It was always all about him. Now he’s an old man. Now he valued her, when she didn’t know what was going on. Now, after all those years.
And he wept and grieved her after she died. An old man, all alone now. And then he almost got taken from us last July, from a severe infection in his leg. I mean, the man came that close to joining Mom. But he didn’t. He held on. And when his health improved and he came back, something had changed, pretty drastically. It seemed like some of his memories had been burned out of him. He wasn’t missing Mom all that much, anymore. “She’s gone,” that’s what he said when her name came up. “We can’t bring her back. She’s gone. She’s buried.”
Yes. She is gone. And yes, she is buried. We did that as a family. And I can feel all of it, the loss of it, from here, today. And this summer, sometime soon, the family will gather once again. This time, to honor Mom again. The family will plant her simple gravestone, complete with the information of who she was. That’s pretty much all the Amish put on gravestones. Just the bare facts.
Ida Mae (Yoder) Wagler, wife of David Wagler. And there will be the dates of when she was born, and when she died. Unspoken, on the gravestone, will be this message.
She was deeply loved by all her children.