The years are walking in his brain, his father’s voice
is sounding in his ears…His living dust is stored with
memory…He has never been here, yet he is at home.
I live in Lancaster County. Smack dab in the heart of one of the largest Amish communities in the world. Not to mention the oldest. And coming from where I’ve been, I sometimes feel like the odd man out there, drifting in a sea of cultural blue bloods.
Since my readership has increased pretty drastically in the last few months, it might be good to tell of how that happened. Some of you out there are probably wondering. Lancaster County. What’s up with that? Did the guy ever really leave the Amish, as he claims? Why can’t he seem to shake them for good?
Well, yes, I left. For good, back there at the end of the book. I never returned to Bloomfield or to Goshen, except to visit. But never to try again. That was my final departure. And at that time, there was little about the culture that attracted me. I wanted to shake it all off, the last vestiges of those chains. I was free at last. After all those years of turmoil. Free. And it felt great.
And yeah, there was some resentment bubbling inside me. A little bit of anger. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, but it was there inside my heart. And I spoke it now and then. These people were stuck in their backward ways. They were welcome to stay there. The memories were still so raw inside, and so fresh. I was done. Gone. For good. I would never look back, except in gratitude that I had finally escaped. That’s how I felt.
I settled in Daviess, hung with the Mennonites and Beachy Amish, and they welcomed me. Then in the summer of 1989, I came to Lancaster County. Not out of curiosity, but for strictly economic reasons. That fall, I was set to enter college at Vincennes. I had a connection in Lancaster. And he told me. Come on in. Wages are way higher. You can make some real money here. More than you ever will in Daviess. Come on in. And the decision was easy. I had been a rolling stone for most of my adult life. So it seemed like a good idea, to roll on some more. Lancaster. I’d heard so much about the place. Remembered how odd they had seemed, the people from there, way back when they visited us in Aylmer.
And so, in May of that year, I loaded my ugly tan-gold T Bird and headed east. Arrived in Lancaster safely. It’s a beautiful area. Old, for this country. Lots of history. Tiny narrow ribbons of paved roads wind and twist through the countryside. Countless tidy little farms dotted about. Ancient stone houses and great red barns, owned by the same family for generations. Real roots, here. None of the vagabonding like my father had done, decades ago. These people were planted here. Born here. Lived here. Died here.
And the strange Amish buggies with rounded tops and straight sides practically clogged the roads, hitched to wild, high-stepping horses. You couldn’t have paid me to ride those buggies on those roads. Still couldn’t. I almost felt like a tourist, seeing this brand of Amish for the first time.
And that summer I worked long hard hours and saved my money. But I didn’t meet a whole lot of Amish people. I had no desire to, really. Sure, I said hi when passing in the regular stream of commerce. Mostly, I hung out with the Beachy Amish youth at Pequea church. They were friendly and accepting, welcomed me. Invited me to their social activities. It was a good summer, and a short one. In August, I left for Daviess and Vincennes, still convinced that the Lancaster Old Order Amish were one strange bunch.
The next summer I returned to Lancaster. And again, I made no attempt to meet any Amish people, or get to know them. Still wanted nothing to do with them. The summer passed, and I returned to Daviess and my second and final year at Vincennes.
The third summer, that’s when things started shaking. And changing. I boarded with Ben and Emma Stoltzfus and their family. On their farm just east of Honey Brook, over the line in Chester County. Upstairs, in the third floor attic of the farm house. A cozy little place that would be my Pennsylvania home base for about the next five years. Ben and Emma became as close to my surrogate parents as any couple ever has. I treasure the memories of their kindness. And their love.
And one summer evening, after I’d returned from a long day of working in the sun, Emma had a message for me. Some Amish guy had called that day. David (not his real name). Asked lots of questions. Was I staying there? Was I David Wagler’s son? Emma told him yes, and promised she would tell me. And she did. I was supposed to call him back. Here’s the number to his phone shack.
I looked at the slip of paper and shrugged. This was about the last thing I needed, some Amish guy tracking me down. I had just broken away a few short years back. I knew plenty of Amish people, even a few I still considered my friends. Why would I want to get to know any more? I pitched the number. Didn’t return David’s call. He’d go away if I ignored him, I figured. Another nosy Amish man with all kinds of invasive questions. No way, I wasn’t playing that game. He probably wanted to admonish me for leaving. Tell me to go back, to “straighten up and settle down” where I should be, back in Bloomfield. I didn’t want to hear it. Not this time. That song had been played too many times. No more, I would listen to it no more.
And a week or so later, another message. Emma smiled almost apologetically and told me as I walked in, exhausted, from a hard day’s work. David had called again. Insisted that he wanted to see me. Again, I shrugged. Who was this wacko Amish man? So persistent. Well, I could be persistent, too. And again, I pitched the phone shack number. Ignored the man.
And then, David unlimbered the big guns. He didn’t call Emma again. Oh, no. He waited, craftily, until evening the next time he called about a week later. I don’t remember who answered the phone. But it was for me. It’s David. The Amish guy.
I gave up right then. Any man that persistent at least deserved an answer directly from me. So I walked into the front room, off to the side, kind of a parlor. Took the phone. Hello. And a calm pleasant voice spoke. Precisely stating the words. Good evening. This is David. Is this Ira? Yes, it is. A few brief polite pleasantries. Then, hey, would you stop by some Saturday soon? We would love to meet you, my wife and I.
And there I stood, stuck. No. I don’t want to meet you. No. I don’t need to be admonished by any new Amish “friends.” But I couldn’t just say that. Too rude. So I hedged. Yeah, that might work. What did you have in mind? Of course, the following Saturday afternoon suited David just fine. And, of course, I had nothing else planned. So, reluctantly, I agreed. Where do you live? It’s simple, David claimed. We live just off the highway….and he gave me specific directions. OK, I promised. I’ll be there this Saturday afternoon. He looked forward to meeting me, he said. I mumbled in response. We hung up.
That Saturday afternoon, I headed out, shortly after one. In my old T Bird. Someday, I will write of how just ugly that car was. Not the shape, necessarily. But the color. Tan-gold. It was just gag-me awful. I haven’t owned that many vehicles in my lifetime, but I have owned two of the ugliest colors in the spectrum. The old avocado green Dodge. And that awful tan-gold T Bird. Other than the color, though, the T Bird was a decent car. It got me to where I was going, for a good many years. As a destitute student. So I guess I should honor it a little more.
I drove down the crowded two lane highway toward Lancaster. Turned right onto David’s road. A mile or two in. And then I turned into his drive. Nice place. Clean as a whistle, like most Amish places in Lancaster County. Not even a wayward leaf on the ground anywhere. Neat freaks, like all Lancaster Amish people. I parked. Got out and walked toward the house. Strangely, I wasn’t particularly nervous. This meeting was coming down, and it would be what it would be.
David met me at the door. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Then he welcomed me into his home. I walked in. Met his smiling wife, and their clan of quiet children. All of them milled about. I scanned the room, amazed. Stacks of books were strewn about everywhere. Not fluff books, either. Literature. Theology. Bestsellers. I was instantly impressed. And as I looked into their faces, I suddenly knew that they were genuinely happy that I was there, in their home. It wasn’t just their smiles. It was their eyes. There was no hint of judgment in them. None. Nothing but pure honest joyful welcome. I didn’t know such a thing even existed in the Amish world.
And that was my first taste of how it can be, and how it could have been so much earlier in my world. To be accepted as I was, who I was, by someone from my background, my culture. Truly accepted. And truly welcomed. There was not a shade of a cloud of any reservation. None. I don’t think I could quite grasp, quite wrap my head around what that meant to me in that moment.
I won’t claim that I was suddenly, magically relieved of my resentment toward the Amish in general, right then. I wasn’t. I won’t claim that I decided right then that Lancaster County would be my future home. I didn’t. I was a rolling stone. Heading off to Bob Jones University in South Carolina that fall. I had no idea where I’d end up. I didn’t think ahead that much. I was focused only on working summers to earn enough to survive another year of college without loading up on too much crushing debt. I’d settle where I’d settle, when the time came.
I will say that when I met David and his family, that was my first real taste of people from my culture who accepted me, even though I had chosen to walk away. And that was a profound and startling thing to me. A minor miracle. To realize that such people could exist. I thought I knew the Amish as a group, and all their mindsets. I didn’t. Because I had never been exposed to certain elements of the Lancaster County Amish before.
The blue bloods came through. That’s all I can say. They fully deserve the status they claim for themselves. They are the real thing. What the Amish could be and should be.
That said, they’re not all like David and his family, the Lancaster Amish. Not nearly all. Even here, most are more like the type of Amish I knew growing up. Especially down south. South-enders, we call them. They’re mostly grim and humorless. Hard core. I can usually tell, when I meet them. Who they are and what they are. By how they look. I can sense their spirit. And tell who they are, from certain shadows in their eyes.
That was right at twenty years ago, when David finagled me into coming to his home. After that first time, the place became a regular Saturday afternoon stop for me. I soon developed a deep, quiet friendship with his family. Off and on, I’ve been there, a character in their lives as the children grew into adults. Married now, some of them. With children of their own. There were a few stretches through the years where I lost contact with them for a while, but I always circled back. Back to a zone of comfort that welcomed me, offered shelter from the storms. Back to real true friends.
And in time, my mind relaxed as well. My journey looped back, back to my roots. And I settled in, where there was comfort and support. I will never be accepted as a true Lancastrian. No one not born here is. But I’m settled, in my head. This is my home. Today, some of my closest friends are Old Order Amish. Right here, around me, in Lancaster County.
It might make sense, or it might make no sense, to those who have broken away from restrictive religious backgrounds. That I hang so close to the culture that caused so much pain. It might be mostly an Amish thing, I don’t know. Years ago, my brother Joseph was traveling by bus somewhere through Texas. At the bus station in some big city, a guy walked up to him. Completely English. Spoke to him in broken Pennsylvania Dutch. He had left the culture decades before. Lost pretty much all contact with his roots. And sometimes he randomly drove over to the bus station just to see if some Amish people might be passing through. And that day, Joseph was. They visited for a while, and the guy left. Still then, years later, he could not deny his longing for some connection to his culture. Something in his heart moved him to do what he did. There is no way to really disconnect, however much one might want to.
I chose to circle back, to live among them, the Amish. I could have chosen not to, and that would have been perfectly OK as well. I certainly don’t live like them, their lifestyle. Couldn’t do that if I tried. And I have no desire to. When I go “home” to visit, I stay in a motel. Because after spending the day in what used to be my world, I’m always quite ready to return to modern conveniences.
I guess for me, the dividing line is this. If, back there in the culture you have fled, there are people who still accept you as you are, stop. Reconsider your thoughts. Not your path, your journey is your choice. Just open your heart to those whose hearts are open to yours, and you will likely see with new eyes where you’ve been, and where you’ve come from.
My people, and my culture, will always be a part of my identity. Always be a part of who I am, how I react, how I see things. And nothing will ever change that fact. I can deny it. Or accept it. Either way, it’s still true.
It’s important, I strongly believe, to face and make peace with the past. And all it ever was, good or bad. Whatever the flaws of those in that world, to accept them. Whatever the hurts, to forgive those who inflicted them. Whatever the wounds, to seek healing. Which can be no small thing, sometimes, I know well enough. It wasn’t a small thing for me, and my journey was a walk in the park compared to that of those who have endured and survived every imaginable form of abuse. But it can be done, and it must be done. For a whole lot of good reasons. But mostly, for the sake of your own heart.
Because a heart that refuses to be healed will never be truly free.
It is to have the old unquiet mind, the famished heart,
the restless soul; it is to lose hope, heart, and all joy
utterly, and then to have them wake again…
It was an ordinary Tuesday a few weeks back. Mid morning. Busy at the office, the phones were ringing right along. And then Rosita beeped me. A guy on hold asked for me, wanted to talk. Some Dr. Helton from Vincennes University. OK, I said. She transferred the call.
This is Ira. And the pleasant man on the line identified himself with just a smidgen of a Midwestern drawl. Dr. Richard Helton, president of Vincennes University in Indiana. Vincennes University. My alma mater. The place I graduated from in 1991. A place of many good memories for me. Still, I’d pretty much lost touch over the years. Dr. Helton, after a few brief pleasantries, launched into the reason for his call.
Somehow, they had found my book. Someone on the faculty there. And someone with some influence had lobbied hard for me. So I was placed into the running, “taken into consideration,” I guess they call it. And somehow, I had won, all the while blissfully unaware that anything was even going on. And now, after the votes had been tallied, after the Board had reached a decision, Dr. Helton had called to tell me the good news.
On Saturday afternoon, April 28th, 2012, Vincennes University will award me an honorary doctorate.
It didn’t really hit me right at that moment, what that all meant exactly. Although I was pretty floored. Of course, I said, I’ll be there. I’m flattered and honored. I’ll be there. I asked whether any of my old friends, my professors, were still teaching there. Mostly not. Most of them have retired or moved on. After chatting amiably for another ten minutes, Dr. Helton said so long and hung up. I got up, too, and walked around a bit. My head was spinning.
An honorary doctorate. Just what the heck is that, anyway? I thought back over the years. I have graduated from three different institutions of higher learning. Vincennes University. Bob Jones University. And the Dickinson School of Law. At all three of those graduation ceremonies, someone had been awarded some sort of honorary degree. And I remember yawning, along with pretty much every other graduate. Come on. Stop wasting our time. Get on with the program. We’re here to graduate. Please, no long speeches. Give the guy his honorary degree and get him off the stage. That’s how we felt, mostly. And now it was my turn, to be the reason others thought those very thoughts. I guess what goes around comes around. Sometimes, anyway.
From here, from where I now am, it’s a pretty cool feeling, though, whatever one might think. Very cool, to be honored like that.
And I think back to how it was back then, in those days. When I first realized that I had a shot at actually attending a real university. A goal that had never even reached the status of a dream. It was too far out there, too impossible to even be on my radar screen. College? Me? I had an eighth grade education. Never had a day of high school. How would it be possible to enter, let alone graduate, from college?
The winter of 1988-1989 was tough for me in many ways, which isn’t that surprising. I’m a glutton for tough times, seems like. This was just one more in a long string. It’s not like I was alone, exactly. I mean, there was support around me, as I settled into my post-Amish world in Daviess.
But always, it seemed, something hard rose to confront me. That winter, I was reeling from the abrupt loss of a relationship I desperately wanted to work out. It did not. Instead, it collapsed into dust and ashes around me, because I could not speak my heart. The whole scene was pretty brutal. I’ve never written about it before. Not publicly. One day soon I will, maybe. I’m far enough away now, to speak of it without wandering too close to the edge of brooding darkness. At least, I think so.
And over that winter, I hunched down and absorbed the bitter pain of a loss such as I had never known. It was probably more intense in my mind because of how alone I felt. And how alone I was, really. In my new world, my new life in Daviess. It’s not like I could communicate much, not like I could really trust anyone around me, to talk to. Mostly because I didn’t know how. And somewhere, in the spasms of that pain, the shadows of a plan came to my mind. Leave this behind. Strike out into a new world. Get your GED. That’s the equivalent of a high school diploma. Get that, and maybe enroll at Vincennes in the fall.
I wasn’t sure just what all was involved. I couldn’t imagine taking the tests for my GED without some preparation. I made some calls. There were classes one could take, at the local high school in Washington. Tuesday nights, if I remember right. And a week or so later, I walked in and enrolled. Tentatively, a bit scared. I don’t remember the nice lady’s name, but I remember how helpful she was. Oh, yes, she said. Yes, yes. Come on in. We’ll analyze where you are. Take some placement exams. We’ll figure out what you need to learn. And we’ll teach you what you don’t know, so you can get your GED. And go on to college. Vincennes will take you. Don’t be afraid. You can do this.
Grateful for her words, I took the placement exams. And amazingly, in pretty much every category, I was already at college entry level. Except one. Math. I had a strong but basic eighth grade education from the Aylmer Amish school. Since then, I had devoured countless books. I had read and read and read. Much trash. And some good stuff, too. But who goes out and learns math on their own? A math brain, I guess. Which was most definitely not me. Still, I was astounded and emboldened. I could do this. And so I began attending classes, there in Washington, Indiana, to learn some basic elements of math. And to polish up my writing.
And after a couple of months of attending those weekly classes, I took the plunge. Went in and sat for my GED tests. I don’t recall many specific details of that day, except I was fairly confident. And when my scores came back, they were good. Actually, in a very high percentile. The nice lady smiled and congratulated me. She knew I could do it. This is the beginning. Now go enroll at Vincennes. Here’s all the information you need, to do that. And so I did. Enrolled at a real university, for the fall of 1989.
That summer was my first full summer here in Lancaster County. And it was a time of sweat and labor. I toiled in the dust and heat from dawn to late afternoon every day, five or six days a week. Working construction, building pole barns. It was one of the most intense and healing summers in my memory. I wanted to work, to save money for college. And I wanted to work to forget. I labored long and hard, to leave behind what was lost and to lay up for the future. And those three months were amazing, looking back. A mixture of so many emotions. I knew what was behind me, I’d just walked from there. There was no way I could possibly envision what lay ahead.
Three days before my 28th birthday. That’s when I walked through the doors of Vincennes University as a student for the first time. Clutching my new bright blue Jansport backpack, sagging with textbooks, I entered the halls of the Humanities Building. That’s the stuff I had signed up for, mostly. English. Literature. History. Speech. And one lone remedial math class, way across the campus.
And it was a magical and frightening time. Magical, because of the new possibilities that suddenly seemed so within my grasp. And frightening, because of where I’d come from. I was a simple ex-Amish man, with not a day of high school under my belt. That’s intimidating, any way you look at it. And yet, here it was before me. All I had to do was walk forward through the open door. College. The real thing. A world that called to a deep place in my heart. And to me, it was pretty much a miracle, this university. Vincennes University. A two-year school. The gateway to my journey through a world I had never dared to imagine.
I lapped it up from the first day. Timidly, I took a seat in my first class. Way in the back of the room, which would forever after be my most comfortable spot. World Lit, with Dr. Rodgers. A frail little wisp of a man, not that well spoken. But very knowledgeable. He hemmed and hawed and welcomed us. This semester, we would be exploring this theme and that theme in our studies. We’ll be writing a paper every month. The syllabus described our course. Syllabus? What was that? I’d never heard that word before. Had no clue what it meant.
I would soon hear a lot of words that I had never heard spoken before. Words I had read, words the meaning of which I knew full well. But there’s a difference between reading a word and hearing it used in actual conversations, properly articulated. I cringed at the way I’d been pronouncing some of them. And I listened and learned.
That first semester, I signed up for what was considered a full load. Fifteen hours. English I. History of some kind. Literature. And a few other classes I can’t recall. But it was the humanities, the reading, the writing, that side of the brain that was my strength. And I walked naturally through those doors, the doors that seemed to call my name. I was new here. Didn’t know who or what I could trust. So I went by instinct.
And to me, it was like a smorgasboard, the university. It was as if I were seated at a table groaning under the weight of a great feast of so many mysteries I longed to touch and taste. And feel. I eagerly read the assigned literature. Completed the writings on time. I was serious, focused and hungry, and that was soon plain to those around me. Within a month, all my professors knew my name, knew who I was. And to their credit, every single one of them recognized and welcomed from their hearts this student who had emerged from the backwoods of the “peaceful people,” the Amish. Every single one. Their doors were always open to me, and I soon felt calm and comfortable enough to just stop by and chat. To talk of things. To pick their brains. I was right at ten years older than the average college freshman. I’d lived ten tough years of life most of my classmates had never seen and probably would never see. And to me, it was a huge privilege just to be there.
After that first semester, fifteen credit hours were not enough to occupy my mind. The second semester, I took eighteen hours. And in my second year at Vincennes, on a full merit scholarship, I enrolled for twenty-one class hours both semesters. Sure, this was a junior college. Not a four-year school. Not as rigorous. But for me, well, I could not have found a more perfect launching place.
To me, Vincennes University was a shining city on a hill.
For what it meant to me, for what it did for me, for what I learned there, Vincennes University will always hold a special place in my heart. Always. And now they want to award me an honorary doctorate. Put me in a robe, and a mortarboard cap. From thenceforth, I can call myself Dr. Ira Wagler if I want to.
Which is strange, actually, and kind of funny. It’s never been my goal, ever, to get a doctorate of any kind. Never. It’s never been even a remote thought in my head, to be able to call myself Dr. Wagler.
And I won’t, except maybe in the odd instance where doing so might open an otherwise closed door. Then I might. Other than that, it would be a bit presumptuous, I think. To call myself that, or expect others to.
But you bet I’ll go to Vincennes University on April 28th. You bet I’ll be honored to attend. To walk the hallowed halls of academia again. To tour the old grounds. And you bet I’ll be grateful to accept the honor they are bestowing upon me. With all its pomp, and all its glory. I’ll revel in every minute. Soak it up. In a robe, and tassled mortarboard cap. Make a short speech. Oh, yes, it will be brief. And then I’ll return to my rather mundane life, back here in Lancaster County. Marveling at the strange way things come down sometimes.
I can’t help but wonder what’s around the next bend on this road.
The book is still roaming around out there, in some pretty elite terrain. I wrote about it, a month ago. How Amazon reduced the Kindle price, and how Growing Up Amish rocketed into the stratosphere. All through March, the eBook hung in there. In the top 25, mostly. Dipped and rose and dipped again. The highest spot I ever saw was #13. In all of Amazon Kindle. I am grateful that since returning to regular pricing on April 1st, the eBook has hung in there in the top one hundred.
And last month I wondered when it would show up in the bestseller lists. It was the top selling nonfiction book on Amazon, that was pretty clear. Would the New York Times recognize it? I didn’t know. And so one day, I cautiously asked Carol. She didn’t know. She didn’t think so. OK. I won’t look for it.
And no one saw it coming, three weeks ago, on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. Number eleven. A week later, number three. No one saw it. No one from Tyndale. And not my agent. I was unaware that such a thing even existed. The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. Who would? Apparently no one in the publishing world knew, either.
It was so haphazard, the way it all came down. Last Saturday morning, an email from a friend. Hey. Your book’s number one on the WSJ’s bestseller list. Congratulations. Sure, I figured. Number one in memoirs.
And that afternoon, I stopped at a friend’s house for coffee. Hey, check out your copy of The Wall Street Journal. I think my book’s listed there. We looked. And we found it. Growing Up Amish was the number one eBook nonfiction bestseller, period, during the week ending March 25th. The New York Times didn’t recognize that fact, because my book was priced at a promotional discount. But the Wall Street Journal counted the raw numbers. I was number one. I stared. Then I took a picture with my iPhone. There aren’t too many higher pinnacles than that.
Today is Good Friday. A holy day. Growing up, we always observed Good Friday. I can’t remember if it was a fasting day in the Midwest, but it sure is here in Lancaster County, for the Amish, which mostly means they don’t eat breakfast and then have a large lunch. Many businesses shut down, including Graber Supply. So we got the day off. It seems strange, because Good Friday is not an official holiday. The banks are open. The mail is delivered. It’s like, why are you open? This is a holy day.
And on this holy weekend, I wish a blessed Easter to all my readers.