December 30, 2011

The Year of Harvest…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


All things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things
that lapse and change and come again upon the earth —
these things will always be the same…

—Thomas Wolfe

An ordinary morning at the office a few weeks back. I was working at my desk when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the number. Unfamiliar, but local. I answered. Ira here.

The caller stated his name, and briefly, his reason for calling. He had just picked up a copy of my book yesterday. A mutual friend had recommended it. Last night he had sat up way late. Read all the way to the end. He just now called to tell me.

And with barely a pause, he launched. Unleashed a torrent of words. His story. From way back. He had left the Amish decades ago. Been excommunicated. All his life, he carried the frustrations of that choice. The deep wounds of being cut off from his family. Of the bitterness he battled again and again, all through the long years. He nearly wept as he thanked me over and over. Thanks for telling your story. It was time someone did. And still the words spilled from him as he talked, on and on.

I listened. Silently, sympathetically. Not that I could have gotten much in edgewise, anyway. The guy had obviously been deeply touched. And he was calling to tell me. Finally, someone he knew would understand. After five minutes or so, I gently interrupted him. I’m at work. I really appreciate your call. I really do. But I have to get back to work. Stop by sometime, and we’ll go have lunch. We’ll talk. Sure, he said. He thanked me and hung up.

At the book signing in Bloomfield last month, a stubble-faced guy walked in a few minutes early. I’d never seen him before, don’t know where he came from. He wasn’t one of my old West Grove buddies or anything. He stood in line, then approached me with his book and spoke his name. He had already read it, several times, he said. I thanked him and signed his copy. But he had come to tell me something more.

“This is an important book,” he declared solemnly. “It will be read for a long, long time. It’s an important book.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m very grateful that I had the chance to tell my story. And that my book was published by a major company like Tyndale.”

He seemed to think I hadn’t heard him. So he repeated. “It’s an important book. It will be read for a very long time.” The crowd behind pressed in on him then, so I didn’t have much of a chance to discuss why he thought my book was important. I thanked him again, and he moved on and out.

But I thought about his words later. A lot. Is Growing Up Amish an important book? Maybe. Maybe not. Readers will decide that. The market. And time, I suppose. It’s certainly not why I wrote it, to be important. Start out with a goal like that, and it’s a sure-fire way to never reach it. I write to write, to tell my story. Others can decide whether the book is worth reading, and whether it reaches the status of being “important.”

And those were two of the more memorable reactions to the book. I’ve seen and heard just about everything between. Along with some pretty strident criticism, too. Everyone has an opinion, one way or another. And I’m fine with that.

It’s been a good year. And I mean good. A year of harvest. When so many things fell into place. When so much came to pass, the stuff dreams are made of. When dreams come true, though, it’s not necessarily a relaxing time.

I’ve experienced just about every type of stress there is. Intense freaky stress. And the more reserved, silent stress, the type that really wears you down. I’ve gained twenty pounds, simply from not taking care of myself. A New Year’s resolution might be in order. Get back in shape.

I’ve recorded a lot of book-related experiences on this blog, as they happened. So I won’t go through all that again. Right now, I feel grateful and deeply thankful for all my blessings. I have to pinch myself sometimes, just to make sure I’m awake, that it’s all real. The Lord’s promises have never failed, but still, until you walk through that long, dark place where you desperately need them to be true, you don’t know what it is to really see those promises unfold. At least, that’s how it was for me.

Some numbers on the book. People are always asking. How many have sold? Are you quitting your “real” job? Are you rich? No. And no. I happen to like my “real” job a lot. The book has certainly achieved for me some degree of fame. But the fortune one instinctively associates with a bestseller in one’s mind, well, I’m still waiting on that. Sure, I’ll make a few bucks. And that’s great. I’ve already had replacement windows installed in my house, upstairs and down. And rebuilt my very tiny bathroom. All with the money from the book. It was way past time for both those little projects. And, of course, the evil, greedy tax man lurks out there, waiting to grab his share. So there won’t be any fortune, not unless the book sells a LOT more copies than it has to date.

As of now, there have been five printings. A total of around 50,000 hard copies. And around 15,000 eBook units have sold. Of the hard copies, around 10,000 remain out there in the market place, and Tyndale has about 5,000 stored in their warehouse. So a total of around 50,000 units, hard copy and eBook, have actually sold.

That’s more copies sold than most books ever dream of seeing. A respectable number. Very respectable, for a first-time unknown author. But it’s not huge. Plenty of other books out there have made a far larger splash, sold tens and hundreds of times more copies. My book has been a medium success, I’d say. Kind of like my blog. It gets a medium flow of traffic.

Probably another 10,000 copies would have sold, were the Amish and Mennonites not so maddeningly frugal. “Oh yes,” they write me cheerfully. Or even tell me to my face. “I bought a copy of your book and loved it so much that I’m passing it around to all my extended family.”

Which means anywhere from 10 to 50 people will read that one copy. That’s very nice, of course. The more people that read the book, the better. But it would be far nicer if some people in those extended families bought their own copies as well. Nothing anyone’s gonna do about it, though. That book-sharing habit is so ingrained into Amish and Mennonite culture that it’s useless to even grumble about it. All I can do is smile and nod.

I don’t know if the numbers out there represent the harvest of sales that have peaked and now will slow down. Or if the numbers represent the seed to be harvested. I hope it’s the seed, of course. That the book will keep selling and spreading. Wherever it goes, whatever happens, I’ve had my real shot at the real deal. And I’ve done OK. It’s just that, well, from an author’s perspective, it’s never enough. You always want more.

Whatever the case, I have to remain who I am. Can’t let it go to my head, that my book was moderately successful. My writing voice, silent for so long that I despaired of ever finding it, is one of my most treasured possessions. I don’t ever want to lose it. Which will happen, if I try to be something other than what I am.

The book has made its waves inside the Amish culture. It will continue to do so, I think, this coming year. It will be interesting to see what kind of structured response might emerge from those communities that are hostile to the book. I think that response might be forthcoming in 2012. Or maybe not.

Bloomfield, of course, has its problems with my work. And Aylmer, too, I’m sure. The official response has been muted. At some point, someone is going to say something. If not publicly, then privately. I’ll hear about it.

And in northern Indiana, too, I hear the book is not being well received among the Amish. Including my old friends, the people I knew there. I haven’t heard any specifics, just that they have recoiled from the book and are pretty hostile toward me. I’m not sure how many Amish people there have actually read it. Probably a few scanned it, and spread the word that the story is scandalous. I regret those reactions. I really do. I had hoped for at least an honest response. Tell me where I’m wrong. Show me what I wrote that wasn’t true.

And strangely, some few intellectuals (Certainly not all, or even many. Could be a tiny handful.), from certain slivers of the more progressive, mostly western Beachy-Amish and Mennonites, have been quite resistant to the book. In subtle ways, sometimes. And sometimes openly.

I’m not sure why. I guess they figured they were the gatekeepers. The ones who speak authoritatively about plain cultures, including the Amish. Their views are delicately nuanced, of course. And they recoil in horror at the raw, unvarnished details of my story. Their distaste shivers from their words and actions. They are stunned, pretty much in denial that a hick who graduated from Bob Jones University could get his story out there like that. Through Tyndale House yet, one of the largest and most respected Christian publishers in the world.

To them, to those stunned intellectuals, I say, relax. I’m as amazed as you are that my book got published.

That point of amazement, though, is pretty much all we have in common. You would have wished my book to be stillborn. To die before it could live. I wanted my book to hit the stratosphere. Which it hasn’t. So we both have to give a little, seems like, from what we would have wanted. One more thing, though. Stop reading my book through the skewed lenses of what you consider “literary criticism.” Which usually degenerates into just plain old criticism. I simply wrote my story. How it all came down. Sometimes, a story is just a story. And sometimes, a story honestly told reflects a lot of deeper things in life.

But apart from all the noise, I want to speak to you, my readers. The ones who have faithfully traveled with me, this past year. And before. You are the ones who made it happen. The ones who bought my book, and told your friends about it. You are quite a force, and I salute you all. Thank you so much for making this one of the best years of my life. Thank you. So much. I’m humbled and grateful.

The next year, 2012, will be a year of great challenges. And, always, opportunities as well. The future seems frightening, in so many ways. The world reels, from all the unrest and upheaval unleashed by the oppressive policies of increasingly tyrannical governments. The savage fruits of brutal and corrupt political power. Everywhere, we see and smell the fear. The uncertainty.

How it all will play out, no one knows. I’m not looking for anything pretty. In fact, I’m very pessimistic in the short term. Our 2012 presidential election will be the most vicious, scorched-earth political contest in our country’s history. There will be a lot of blood and fire and death across the world in the next twelve months. More so than usual, I think. It’s just shaping up that way. Some of that unrest, that blood and fire, will crash uncomfortably close to our communities, and our homes. I’m convinced it will.

And as those times, those events, invade our consciousness and encroach upon our lives, we will have to decide who we really are. All of us. Where we stand, and how we will choose to live. Where we place our trust. Both in each other, and in God. And as it all unfolds, we will be called to make our choices, to use or not to use the talents that we were given.

Whatever happens, I will write. Not because of any particular message. And not because I have anything particularly important to say. But just to speak. Of what I see from where I am. If no one hears what I’m saying, then it is what it is. I’ll write anyway. It doesn’t matter if no one’s listening. What matters is that I will have expressed myself.

A new year dawns. The old is gone. Never will there be another quite like it. It was a year of good things, a year heavy with the harvest of great blessings.

I look for great blessings in the coming year, too. Whatever happens, 2012 will bring new goals, new destinations. I’m tired, who isn’t? But eager. Eager to leave behind the safe walls of this shining city. Eager to strike out across the vast unknown one more time. I’m ready to battle the old dragons again. They’re still lurking out there. I’ll face and confront them. As I did before. Whack them back. And keep pushing on.

There will be times when I won’t quite know what’s going on. At least, if the past is prologue, that’s how it will be. But that’s where faith kicks in. Whatever the obstacles, they can be overcome. Will be overcome. In time, one at a time.

The new year, the future beckons. I’m thankful to be who I am, where I am. I walk forward with confidence. Calmness. And a little fear, along with a whole lot of other emotions. But mostly, I walk with a grateful heart.

Happy New Year to all my readers.

December 16, 2011

Stepping Through…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:51 pm


To live is to be slowly born.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’ve never considered myself a public speaker, in any sense. Never. I’m not a preacher. Or a teacher, either. Don’t have the patience, to painstakingly work my way through an outline, or whatever it is those guys use. And I don’t particularly enjoy the sound of my own voice. Mostly, though, I’m pretty much petrified by the thought of speaking in front of a whole room full of people. And the thought of stuttering and freezing up in front of a crowd. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

Seems like when it comes to doing new things, especially the unfamiliar, intimidating stuff, I always have to be dragged kicking and screaming through that next doorway.

In 2007, my world imploded in shambles around me. From the ashes of the fiery wreckage, I began to write. Something I should have been doing for decades. I always knew it in my heart, that I should be writing. But I never did, because it was just too hard.

While negotiating my contract with Tyndale two years ago, I fussed and fumed and grumbled savagely but silently to myself when Carol Traver insisted on a continuous, connected thread throughout the book. That was something I had never done before. Ever. But she was adamant. No “sketches.” She wanted a real memoir. I was terrified, but smiled and promised her I would write it. I wasn’t quite sure how, but figured I’d worry about that later. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and all that. The continuous, connected story turned out pretty well, I think.

After the book was released, the Tyndale marketing team lined up a slew of radio interviews. And it was quite daunting, at least the first one. A fifteen-minute live slot. The producer called. Put me on hold. The music cued. Then the host came on live. Today we have Ira Wagler as a guest. Author of “Growing Up Amish.” Welcome, Ira. At that instant, it was sink or swim.

Somehow, I stayed calm. At least, my voice did. And somehow, after we got into the subject matter of the Amish and the book, I relaxed. Let it flow. A few minutes in, I was good. I knew this stuff. Instinctively. With no forethought or planning. I knew it. After that first interview, I never again freaked in even the slightest sense as the next one loomed.

The connecting thread spiraling through my little anecdotes: I never did any of those things until I was pretty much forced to. Except for the writing, maybe. No one forced that on me. It was just a natural reaction to severe emotional trauma. But still, it took that trauma to get it triggered. And in every case, once I took that first step through the door that somehow had swung open, it all worked out. Every time.

And I didn’t really think much of it, one way or another, when a nice lady called me a few months ago. Would I consider attending her book club meeting sometime? To discuss my book? Of course. I’d be honored. She was from Garden Spot Village, a premier retirement center located right in New Holland. They had a small book club there, about fifteen people. And someone had recommended my book. They would read it, then we would discuss it when I came. We settled on a safely distant date. December 7th.

They seemed quite excited that I would attend, the people in the little book club. I’ll say that much. They even did a press release, a tiny notice that appeared in the Sunday News about a month ago. Invited the public to attend. Ira Wagler, local author. Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 7th, at 2 PM. As the date approached, I got a few “reminder” calls from the excited people. I was planning on being there, right? Oh, yes. Yes, I was, I always assured them.

I didn’t fret about it, hardly at all. Or think much about what I’d say. I knew my stuff. And soon enough, the day rolled around. Around 11:30, I left work and headed on over to New Holland. My hosts met me in the main foyer. They would take me to lunch first, then we’d set up in the room where they met. They had reserved a much larger room, they informed me. Plastered posters all around Garden Spot Village. They were looking for a good crowd.

I’d never before toured Garden Spot Village. Never been inside, except the main foyer. That’s where the locals vote. Where I wrote in Ron Paul’s name, in the last presidential election. And will again, in the next one. Garden Spot is famous in the region as a very desirable retirement facility. It’s like a little city in there. And pleasant enough, surprisingly. Huge apartment complexes connected by a center hub. A cafeteria. A full service restaurant. I mean, one could live in there and never have to leave for anything. Which is kind of the idea, I guess. But you can leave on excursions into the outside world anytime you want to.

We sat at a reserved table in the restaurant and ate a fine meal. And it was fantastic. We chatted about this and that. I quickly gathered that the place was very much like any small town. Everyone knows what’s going on, who’s doing what, and who said what. I wouldn’t call it gossip, just chatter. Mostly newsy stuff, sprinkled with opinions.

At 1:30, we headed to the meeting room on the third floor. I had brought a full case of books, which we trundled along on a little cart. You always take your own books to a signing. Just in case anyone wants to buy a copy. We stepped out of the elevator and walked into the room. Good-sized, with over a hundred chairs, a small podium at the front. I was amazed to see the room already filling with people. Twenty or so when we arrived. And in the next 25 minutes, the place filled up. People from within Garden Spot, and people from without. Many clutched copies of my book. I sat at the table and signed and sold books for a while before we started. And then 2 o’clock rolled around. The nice lady walked to the podium and introduced me, to a great storm of clapping. And then I stood to address the crowded room. More than a hundred people. Assembled, to hear me speak.

And amazingly, I was fine. A brief five-minute intro. Who I am. Where I come from. And the book. How it came to be. How I consider it a miracle, the way it all came down. The fact that it exists at all. And then I said, from here on we’re going to talk about what you all want to talk about. Are there any questions? Half a dozen hands shot up.

I took all the questions, one by one. Spoke back. Naturally. Relaxed. And more questions poured in, thick and fast. All were valid, some more so than others. A few, whether by accident or design, tried to back me into a corner. Tried to get me to pour some concrete, to say negative things about the Amish. I stayed on message. On what I believe. About the Amish, and about Christians in general. Sure, there are fakes out there. People who are focused on works, on rules. Sure, there are Amish people like that. Of course there are.

But the Amish are not that different from any other people. A little different, maybe, because of their austere lifestyle. But they are human, just like anyone else. And sure, among the Amish, there are people totally depending on their works to save them. Such people exist in a whole lot of other denominations, too. A whole lot. But just because you are Amish does not mean that you are lost. I fought that theme, again and again. No. I will not condemn the culture. No. I won’t. In fact, I highly respect the Amish people. I could never live like that, but I will always defend their right to believe as they see fit. Religious freedom is key to any free society. Whether or not the beliefs of any specific group make any sense to me, or to the mainstream. Details don’t matter, not when weighed on that scale. Freedom does.

The minutes rolled by. Many questions focused on the details of the book. Sam Johnson. Did he really cut you off like that? Yes. He did. But he also heeded the call, way back, when my soul was at stake. Did what he was asked to do. What happened between us after that doesn’t matter all that much. God uses His flawed children to call His lost children home.

There were a lot of questions about Bloomfield. And Sarah. Where is she now? That was of great interest to all. I answered carefully. Her identity was totally changed in the book. Some remnants of the Amish world might know who she is. But the English world will never know, not from me. Had there been any way to omit her completely from the story, I would have. But there wasn’t. Not without gutting a good portion of the heart of the narrative. Whatever the repercussions, my story is my story. And, as the Tyndale people told me, I have the right to tell it. As we all have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to speak of where we’ve been, and where we’ve come from.

It went fast, and all too soon 3 o’clock rolled around. Time to stop. One last question. Then they all clapped. And I returned to the table and signed and sold books. And chatted briefly with each person in line. Thanked each one for coming. Pretty much all of them seemed thrilled. Then it was over.

I had stepped through one more doorway. And it felt great.

I’m ready now, for the first time ever, to offer to speak before groups of people. Groups, say, within a two-hour radius of Lancaster. And beyond, really, if there’s a big enough crowd. And if my travel expenses are paid. I never could quite imagine that this day would come, but it has. So if any of you, my readers, would like to arrange a book talk, contact me. In the next few weeks, I’ll post a specific page up there on the top of my blog. Probably gut and remodel “The Ellen Years” page. It’s about time for that, I’m thinking. In the meantime, if you’re interested in setting something up, just shoot me an email from my “Contact Me” page.

The journey of the book has been so much more than I could ever have imagined. At least to this point. And that journey, I think, is far from over. There will always be another doorway ahead. Somehow, I’ll get pushed through each one as it looms.

And I’m OK with that. Looking forward to it, even.

I haven’t mentioned his site since a few years ago when he launched it. But lately I’ve been perusing Wagler Wisdom, my brother Jesse’s blog. Jesse has that Wagler drive to express himself, and he does it well. Mostly just his personal take on things. He’s certainly not shy with his opinions, which is cool. Gotta keep up the old family traditions.

He also does something I usually don’t. My stories are mostly from memory. From the things I saw, the things around me. From my childhood on. Jesse does actual research on stuff. Digs up old articles of interest and such. Posts links. And lately he came up with a rather startling document.

It was written by Joseph (Joe) Stoll, my cousin, Dad’s nephew. Joe co-founded Pathway Publishers with Dad, way back in the 60s. A little fact that I’m pretty sure was included in the first draft of my book, but somehow got edited out. In 1966, when I was five years old, Joe Stoll wrote a brief article on the then-current state of the Aylmer Amish community. Complete with history, and statistics.

Many, I know, will find such stuff dry as chalk on a blackboard. But it’s amazing to me that somehow, lurking around on Google, Jesse found that article that someone (NOT Joe Stoll) had posted. And linked it to his blog. The first-hand account of the founding of the Aylmer Amish community pretty much backs up my version. I wrote what I had always heard, the things I remembered. I never saw this article before. To me, it was just fascinating to see that the actual written details so closely resemble the stories I heard as a child.

And it’s almost Christmas time again. Seems like it snuck right up on me, like it does every year. I don’t get too riled up about any of it. Accumulate and consume, if that’s your thing. Spend next month’s rent on gifts. Or spout grave noble proclamations, decrying the crass commercialism of the times if that makes you feel better. So be joyful. Or be sour. Whatever works. I’m all for leaving people alone to make their own choices about such matters.

I buy gifts for very few, and expect gifts from no one. It’s the freest way I’ve found, to celebrate the season.

I’ll share the Christmas feast with my brother Stephen and his family. Celebrate and watch some football. And if I’m lucky, somewhere along the line, maybe I’ll snag some Roasht from my Amish friends.

Meanwhile, if you are casting about for gift ideas, may I offer my suggestion?

Merry Christmas to all.