May 15, 2009

Cleaning House

Category: News — Ira @ 5:32 pm


My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or
block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?

—Erma Bombeck

I’m getting company at my house this weekend. Family. Some remnants of the great influx of Waglers that will be flowing in. For a wedding this Saturday.

And so they’ll come, the Waglers and the Yutzys. From all points of the country. By air, by land. But none by sea, as far as I know. To observe and celebrate. To witness and rejoice.

My sister Rhoda and her family will stay upstairs, in my still-empty apartment. And I mean empty. No furniture, nothing. At least it’s passably clean. Bring your pillows, air mattresses and sleeping bags, I told them. And my niece Janice, who I haven’t seen in more than two years, planned to come and sleep on my living room couch.

I’m looking forward to it. To seeing everyone, hanging out, the merry boisterous times. I’m more than delighted to play host and reciprocate a bit of the hospitality my siblings have always shown me when I visited their homes.

But to a man who has lived alone now for two-plus years, it’s cause for a bit of, well, shall we say, mild concern. I haven’t had much company, other than guy friends, at my house in a long time. And guys hanging out and snacking with my award-winning chip dip (in my eyes, at least) while watching football or baseball or Nascar usually don’t pay much attention to their surroundings. Not that they’d be even slightly concerned or offended by a messy house.

My house is comfortably cluttered. Stacks of things. Books. Boxes of this and that. Empty steel ammo boxes I use for storing things. Plastic storage tubs with lids. Bags of groceries on the kitchen table. Chips. Tinned food. Cases of water stacked in the porch. More books. Numerous pairs of shoes strewn about. Several coils of new rope I picked up at a gun show (never know when it might come in handy). Hunting knives and other outdoor gear. Backpacks. Clean shirts hanging where they dried weeks ago. And, of course, more books.

A stranger would conclude it’s a hopeless mess. The stranger would be wrong. I know where everything is. I have a system. When I need something, I pluck it from its spot and go. Throw it back when I’m done. It works for me.

So the thought of company, well, all are welcome of course. But when Janice offered to “clean my house” while she’s here, I half panicked. Not that I wasn’t greatly touched by such generosity.

“All I ask is that you have cleaning supplies around somewhere,” she said cheerfully.

Of course. Cleaning supplies. I’m sure Ellen had some such stuff way back when, stuck away in cabinets and kitchen drawers. I made a mental note. Check cleaning supplies.

But before Janice could clean, I figured I’d better get things spruced up a bit. Pre-clean the house so the real house-cleaner won’t be too horrified.

So last weekend I hit it. Vacuumed. Dusted. Swept. Wiped. Discovered some floor and table areas that had not seen the light of day for months. Stacks of books were carefully packed in large plastic storage tubs. Old newspapers discarded. Throws and spreads carefully laundered. The windows, well, the blinds were kept down as always. The way my windows are looking these days, soon I won’t need blinds. Light won’t be able to penetrate, in or out.

This spring, as usual, my house has been overrun by vast hordes of tiny little black ants. Itty bitty things. Swarming everywhere. A few weeks ago, I placed ant traps around the house. Ant hotels, I think they’re called. For some reason, the little pests ignored them completely. Traipsed blithely by. Then last week I went out and bought some sweet poison, brand name Terro. Placed drops of it on little pieces of cardboard and set them about here and there.

Instantly, the ants’ behavior changed dramatically. They congregated as if for church service. Or even better, a deadly revival. Little black rings circled my drops of poison, everywhere I placed them. The drops disappeared, the ants kept coming. I refreshed their supplies daily, bought more Terro, and refreshed supplies again. Near as I can tell, there’s about as many ants as before; when one staggers off to die, another springs forth to replace him. But at least now they are all congregated around my offerings. In out of the way places, not on the table or around the food or in the fridge, which they had somehow infested.

And so my house was about as ready as it was going to get for Janice, the cleaner. Then, on Monday, alas, an email. Apologetic. She couldn’t make it. Had to cancel her ticket. Some things had come up at work and the schedule wouldn’t allow it.

My first reaction: Disappointment, of course. I haven’t seen Janice in more than two years. In Florida, in February, 2007. So I’d been looking forward to hanging out and catching up. Now, none of that. Oh, well.

My second reaction, closely following the first: Drat. All that house cleaning, for what? Sheesh. Next time I’ll wait until she’s on the plane. Could have left it like it was. Messy. Comfortable. Cluttered. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Oh, well. Again.

Almost twenty-six years ago, back in 1983, on a hot August day, a child was born to my brother Steve and his wife Wilma. Their second. A little boy.

It was August 24th. My birthday. We were filling silo that day at my brother-in-law Alvin Yutzy’s farm. As I struggled to lift the heavy bundles of corn stalks from the ground and heave them onto the wagon, I muttered to whoever was working with me, “They’d better name him Ira.”

That’s a bit of an Amish tradition, although not poured in concrete. If a niece or nephew is born on your birthday, walla, you have a namesake. But Ira is a pretty rare name, even among the Amish. It’s really more of a Jewish name. So I wasn’t sure if my brother and his wife would do it. Burden their young son with a name like that.

But they did. Named the boy Ira Lee. I beamed with pride. Now, even if I never had a son of my own, there was someone to carry on my name.

I left Bloomfield for good around the time Ira Lee started grade school. After that, we had only periodic contact. For the first ten years or so, I faithfully sent him a greeting card each year on his birthday, a crumpled $5.00 bill tucked inside. Which was a princely sum for both me and him.

In the mid 1990s, Steve and his family moved east into Lancaster County. A rare thing for Midwestern people to do, move into the furious rat race that is Lancaster. But they did. Settled here. Successfully. Ira Lee finished his education, graduating from Faith High School. And in the next few years, acquired an Associate’s Degree in Business.

He grew into a tall, quiet young man. Taller than me by several inches. The stubborn independent Wagler streak runs in him. He often did things on the spur of the moment, in a manner that befuddled his Lancaster peers. He’s traveled the country. Toured Europe on a shoestring budget. Excels in sports. He is an accomplished writer, as those who have enjoyed his hilarious Harmon stories well know.

He is my nephew. My namesake. I’m proud of him.

This Saturday, at one o’clock, he will marry his fiancé, the lovely Rosa Miller.


I wish them well, as they join their hands and lives for their future together. May God bless their new home, in ways beyond their imagination.

They have honored me by assigning me duties as an usher at the wedding. I’m very proud to accept. For a brief time, at least, the usher is the most powerful person at a wedding. He can seat you at a spot where you can actually see and hear what’s going on, or banish you to the back benches, where there is wailing and much grief.

So to any who are attending, I’m always open to some discreet persuasion. Grease my palm with, say a $20, and I’ll get you a seat of honor, up front. Sass me, stiff me, and you’ll be seated at the back with all the bawling babies. So far back you won’t even know you’re at a wedding.

Such raw power could surge to one’s head and make one giddy. Hope I can handle it.

It’ll be fun. I can’t wait.

Last week’s post created a firestorm, resulting in an astounding forty-six comments. A record. Left all others in the dust. And that’s not even counting the dozen or so private emails I got from readers practically weeping with relief that someone had finally expressed their own frustrations.

This week I’m celebrating the wedding. And hanging out with family and freundschaft and roaring and having a good time. In the near future, perhaps even as soon as next week, I may dig in a little to examine and analyze the reasons the “Heathen” post struck such a nerve.

May 8, 2009


Category: News — Ira @ 6:39 pm


“Is it a book,” he would whisper hoarsely to any aspiring young
author, at the same time rolling his eyebrows about – “is it a book
that you would be willing for your young daughter to read?” Mr.
Stoat had no young daughter, but in his publishing enterprises
he always acted on the hypothesis that he did have, and that
no book should be printed which he would be unwilling to place
in her hands.

The result, as can be imagined, was fudge and taffy, slop and goo.

—Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

I don’t know why I did it. I should have known better. Actually, I did know better. But for some reason, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Can’t imagine what I was thinking.

The three Elmo Stoll blogs have been percolating out there ever since I wrote them. The occasional comment still appears. I still get private emails from readers now and then. So I got to thinking. Why not see if I can get them published somewhere? Done properly, in a little book, with some editing and perhaps a bit of expansion here and there, it would sell. By the thousands. I know that.

I ran the idea by a couple of friends. One of them offered to drop off a hard copy at a decently large publishing house, where he knew some people. The company and its location will remain anonymous. But the company is “plain.” Owned by either Amish or ex-Amish. But very modern and certainly capable of professionally producing the little book.

The next day, my friend called. He was at the publisher’s office. With Joe (not his real name), one of the staff there. I was placed on conference call. The three of us talked. Joe seemed like a knowledgeable fellow. Asked pertinent questions. What did I have in mind?

I told him. The three blogs, edited and perhaps touched up here and there, and com- bined in a book, would sell. “It’s different writing,” I said. “Unlike anything you’ve read before. And I’m not sure your company will want to publish it. It might jeopardize your relationship with other plain clients. Check it out. If you turn it down, that’s perfectly OK.” I gave Joe my email address and cell number and left it at that.

A week passed. Then two. I knew what was happening. That the company would not publish the Elmo story. And that was all right. They have a lot a “plain” clients. No sense offending any of them. Business is business.

And then one morning my cell phone rang. Unknown number. I answered. It was Joe. After exchanging brief pleasantries, he hemmed a bit. He’d read my stuff. And read it again. And passed it around at the company, to get others’ opinions.

He had decided they would not publish it. “That’s perfectly fine,” I said. “I told you when we talked before that you might not want it. Appreciate the time you took to consider it.” I prepared to hang up.

But Joe wasn’t done. He hemmed and hawed a bit more. Then spoke. “Some people I showed it to here thought it was sacrilegious,” he said firmly.

He should have let it go. Let it rest. Had he done so, this post would never have been written. But he didn’t. Somehow, someone had stuck a burr under his saddle. And his bronc was plunging out of control, bucking wild.

And I should have ignored the comment and hung up. Told Joe that we’re not going there. Boy, should I ever have. But I didn’t. I engaged.

“Sacrilegious?” I asked. “What do you mean, sacrilegious?”

Bolder now, Joe plowed on. “The ordination,” he said. “That is a holy thing. And the way you described it, it was, well, it was not a holy thing.”

“I saw what I saw. And I wrote what I saw. I was a little kid, but I remember. What’s wrong with that?” I said defensively. Another huge mistake. It only made him bolder.

“Some here have suggested you wrote this to divert attention from your own life choices,” he said, his voice dripping now with holiness and unctuous hostility.

I realized where he was going. He was my judge and jury. And in that instant I knew the man had read the things I’d written from the heart and gleaned not the slightest shred of understanding, was incapable of grasping even a glimmer of the true human condition of his own culture. Incapable, or deliberately blind. This man, who would contract for publication the driest didactic tomes and untold volumes of doggerel poetry, doomed to unread purgatory on dusty shelves.

In submitting my writings to him, I had cast pearls before swine. Anger and frustration surged through me.

In the past, he could have read Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of other truly great writers of that age and yawned in boredom and disdain. Because of the narrow prism of his blinkered lenses. And because he would judge all they had said from inside the impenetrable walls of his cultural shell.

He had just trotted out that old Amish canard. That rusty, time worn antique, that sly stiletto, that cheap poisonous accusation. The one I’d heard countless times before in previous lifetimes. In my youth. What you are saying cannot possibly be legit, because you have forsaken your own birthright. And you are motivated to point out the flaws of others to detract from the glaring sins that are your own.

There is no defense against such slander. You can’t prove a negative. (When did you stop beating your wife?) Whatever one says in response only proves the accuser’s point.

He sat there, gloating, firm and smug. I could feel it through the phone. He had me.

I should have shut it down right there. Politely. Firmly. And hung up. But I didn’t. I don’t know why. Probably because I wasn’t mentally prepared for such an attack from a supposed professional. Maybe because I clung to a tiny wisp of hope that I could explain, could make him see. Besides, I simply could not believe what I was hearing. So I stayed on defense.

“This is the first time I heard anything like that about any of my writings,” I countered.

“That’s what people here are saying,” he repeated smugly. I could feel his spirit on the attack as he closed in like a shark. “We feel that you have disrespected the church, the church that is holy and perfect before God.”

And that was just the beginning. On and on he rolled, rebuking me for an endless list of offenses. Furious frowning God. What does the family think or say? Why was I so harsh on Aylmer?

I said little. There was really nothing to say. A pause, then. Insufferable piety oozed through the phone.

“Are you Amish?” I asked.

Joe balked a bit, then admitted that he was. “But around here, we are Christians. That’s what’s really important.” he added piously. Inwardly, I groaned. How many more clichés would the man spout?

One more, apparently. A big one. “I’ve checked your web site,” he continued, as if talking to a child. “And you say you are a Christian. But I wasn’t able to tell from your writings. Of course, I didn’t read them all. But the ones I read, I had to wonder. Are you a Christian?”

“Look,” I flared. “I’ve experienced a lot in my life. A lot of tragedy and a lot of grief and loss. I try to tell the stories as they happened. Honestly. I don’t preach. I don’t close out each writing with a syrupy didactic little lesson. Where everything all works out. Because sometimes it doesn’t. I let people figure it out for themselves. That’s what literature does. I’m not saying I write great literature or anything. But that’s what I try to do. As best I can.”

I may as well have been talking to a wall. He would not, could not hear my words. His voice oozed with high holiness and sanctimonious judgment.

“But are you a Christian?” he persisted obstinately.

“I am,” I said.

I could feel his response in the silent pulsing tension. He knew I was lying. That I was a heathen.

He’d just called me one. With his asinine questions.

A few stilted oily preening comments then, in closing down the inquisition. He insisted I should look him up, when I’m “in the area.” He would like to meet me, he claimed patronizingly. We hung up. The interrogation was over.

The great ten-ton gate of final judgment clanged shut with a mighty thud. I was found wanting. And stood condemned.

Blind rage surged through me. I stumbled back to my desk and tried to regroup. To figure out what had just come down. To process the fact that an Amish man miles away had just sliced and diced and dissed me. Had spit me out. Rejected not only my writings, but me as a person. Before God. With all the pious judgment and concrete assurance of the most spotless Pharisee. It was tough to absorb. Fortunately, the office phones rang steadily, and I was soon immersed in the daily grind of my work.

But the rage seethed and bubbled in me. That night. The next day. And the next. And then, about the third day, the light began to penetrate the darkness that clouded my mind. And I began to see.

A lot of things. Why I had allowed a man I had never met, and have no desire to meet, to trigger such a strong reaction in me. Why I had delegated such power to him.

It wasn’t Joe as a person, but what he represented. And the host of dormant memories that were unleashed from the recesses of my mind, and descended like a flood. Of the dark underbelly of the culture from which I emerged so many years ago. The sinister powers of that shadowy world, powers that will not see or speak the truth about certain things. Or allow them to be seen or spoken.

Universal things, the ebb and flow of life, the pride and passions, the pain and loss, the flaws and triumphs, the faults and failures, and the good things too. That are the stuff of human experience, regardless of time, location or culture. Things that have rarely been honestly told by anyone who has emerged from an Amish background.

They stand guard at the gates today, those in the network of that power, of which Joe is but a tiny cog. And blandly pretend to honor the memory of a man like Elmo Stoll, all the while demonizing and condemning those who truly do honor his memory and his name. By being honest about who he was.

They refuse to acknowledge, those guardians at the gates, one important point about themselves and their history. It’s not all darkness. And it’s not all light. Nothing human on this earth is. To pretend otherwise, and to demand obeisance to such pretense, is disingenuous at best, deliberately obtuse at worst.

That doesn’t necessarily make them evil. Not in and of itself. It just makes them wrong. A culture that refuses to tolerate honest examination from others, even its “wayward” sons, cannot truly know itself.

As the realization of these truths sank in, I calmed down a good deal. I’d seen it all before, many times. In the past, years ago. Other hapless questioners, crushed like bugs. But somehow, you never think it will happen to you. That you will be the one in the crosshairs. As I now am. Squarely.

I don’t feel sorry for Joe, but I cut him some slack. Not that I’m excusing the ambush. He chose to do what he did. To blindside me with his condescending unctuous litany of tired worn out clichés he passed off as original thought. But I don’t doubt that he did what he thought was right. He’s probably a decent guy, a loving husband, a caring father. And a sincere Christian.

He just happened to be the one who broke the final straw. At least six times this year, my bona fides as a Christian have been called into question. In similar fashion, but electronically via email or on this site. (Comment #26 on the last Elmo blog is a real doozy. Scroll to the last comment.) Once on another public forum. You can shake it off. For awhile. But there comes a time when such scurrilous, intellectually lazy attacks must be confronted.

Not so long ago, had something like this happened, I would have reacted with a rash of impulsive vows. Not to ever allow something like this to happen again. I will be on alert for even the slightest hint of attack. Suspicious. On guard. But as my good counselor Sam has patiently reminded me these many years, such negative vows tend to close the heart, to choke off the vibrant flow of life and passion. And end up hurting the one determined not to get hurt. In this case, me.

I trust Sam. He looks out for me. So I won’t make such a vow. But I won’t be a sheep led to slaughter either. I learned from this little episode. Even so, it’s possible, even probable that some day, somehow, another ambush might sneak through. From another “Joe.” If it does, I plan to confront it and cut it off. Politely. Cut it short before it escalates, as this one did.

It’s tough, to be rejected by your culture. Years ago, while on the wheat harvest, I worked for a man whose father had emerged from the Hutterite Colonies as a youth. The father was now old. I forget the exact details, but somehow he purchased a piece of equipment from the Colony he had forsaken decades before. Might have been at a public auction. When the time came to settle up, the Colony leaders would not accept his money. He had left them and was considered a heathen. The father was deeply affected by their rejection. Thrown for a serious mental loop.

I remember at the time wondering why. How it could have affected him so deeply, so negatively. Why he allowed it to bother him so. Why he gave them such power. Why he didn’t just shake it off.

I don’t wonder anymore.

This, then, is where it stands. Joe’s attack and its aftermath clearly shed light on some core truths. Among the Amish churches, there exists a strong element that is almost entirely hostile to me. Certainly not all of them. But a substantial percentage. The guardians at the gates. And their minions. The “Joes” of the world. To them, my writings are a toxic poison. To be resisted on every front. And quashed as necessary.

Oh sure, they’ll read the stuff. Can’t help themselves, I guess. It’s good to know what the enemy is up to, and all that. So they read. And shake their heads and seethe inside and murmur to each other, wondering how such a scandalous thing can be.

There are no more illusions. If anything I write is ever published, there will be a horrendous social and cultural cost. And no “plain” publisher will ever touch any of my writings with a ten foot pole.

I’m not making any vows. Sam taught me that lesson well. A heart filled with rage and tension and conflict and bitterness can produce only the fruits of that seed. I won’t live like that. And I don’t want to be defined by such a harvest.

Tomorrow is promised to no one. I don’t know the future, or whether “The Shepherd Chronicles” will ever see the light of day. It might happen. And it might not. For now, it needs some extensive reworking and editing. We’ll see what develops.

And so, it seems, I’ve reached a milestone. One that I’d perhaps not anticipated, but is really not that surprising in retrospect. The realization that any person who writes the stories of his past, his youth, his life as he lived it, and the characters around him, will pay a price. From those who take exception and offense at the writer’s conclusions and perspectives. It’s been thus always. And, I suppose, will always be so.

I have to choose. I can shut it down, shamed, chastened, and allow my voice to be silenced, or at least subdued. Or I can continue the work that has sustained me through the shadows and fog of these past two years. Writing as the muse strikes, writing the things I’ve seen and lived and learned and felt. As honestly as I’m able. And posting it on this blog that is open to all who wish to read. Including those who scan closely with critical eyes to search diligently for some reason, some slight justification, to disparage and denounce my motives, my character, and my faith.

Those who know me should have no qualms; they should know well the choice that beckons.

There is only one.