For have you not retrieved from exile the desperate
lives of men who never found their home?
Well, it’s that time again. Seems like not that long ago, when I last posted that last blog of the year. When one looks back and takes stock a bit. I guess that’s what one is expected to do. It’s what I’ve done, mostly, in the past. Look back, recount and reflect. And tab it out, all the stuff that happened. Good, bad, ugly. And I was figuring to do just that. But when I sat down to pound it out, there was one thing that kept surfacing in my head. One new realization, one new thing of wonder, that stood out above all the rest.
But first, sure it was a wild year, 2012. A year of wild, strange roads. It was the best of times, in many ways I could never have imagined. And it was something less than that, in a few ways I could have imagined. A whiplash of a year. So many things came down, so many things plunged this way and that. And it was a little weird, to keep navigating forward through the maze. All while trying to keep my head straight.
The year sure didn’t start out like I figured. In that sense, it seems so long ago, to look back to what I was thinking then. I was pretty confident. I could walk through any door I chose, I figured. Because I had just walked through one that seemed just flat out impossible. Bring it on, I wrote. Show me a new door. Push me through it. I have to be pushed.
A year ago, there were some noises about a sequel. Not from me, from the market. And I kind of eyed it up, the situation. Yeah, I’ll walk forward, see what happens. I did it once. I can do it again. And I wrote up some stuff, went under. I told you about that when it happened.
Amd 2012 was the year I found out I can’t just breeze my way along. Not by arbitrarily willing it so. You can’t force things. It’s a really strange place to be, because it is a place I least expected. And that’s always a thing of half-terror/half-wonder, like feeling your way out of a cave, maybe. Not that I ever did that. Just making a connection there, somehow.
So I told them, the Tyndale people and my agent. I’m pulling back. It’s not coming. I’m going off to live my life and write my blog for a while. I had no idea how long. Still don’t. It was just an instinctive thing. Go back to where it all started, and stay there until you step out again. It was pretty intense, for me to reach that conclusion. But it was the only thing I knew to do.
And right after I recoiled from that little effort, a strange thing came down. The book was listed on Amazon’s 100 discounted eBook list in March. It went haywire from the first day, and all through that month. When the dust had settled, Carol sent me the numbers. 44,000 eBooks sold in March. In thirty-one days. It was surreal, the whole thing. And it freaked me out a lot.
And that was all good, that March run, but it wasn’t the strangest thing I saw this year.
April brought its own beautiful little oddity. The honorary Doctorate from Vincennes University. And I wrote all that as it all came down, too. It was an extraordinary experience, the whole way through, from inception to presentation. Funny thing is, after it was over, I just went back to being who I was before. Sure, I have a real cool hood hanging in my living room. A pacemaker paddle, and a lot of memories and pictures. The honorary Doctorate was an honor, indeed, and I will always treasure it.
And that was all good, what happened in April. But it wasn’t the strangest thing I saw this year.
Through the summer, and right up til now, the book just kind of trundled along, held its own. Never waved into the ether again, after that March spike. But it’s held steady, right along. And right now, on Amazon, Growing Up Amish has an astounding 260 reviews. One star to five stars. (Nope, I’m not linking it. Find it yourself if you don’t believe me.) That’s big stuff, any way you look at it. It is, when you come from where I came from. All it needs is some little trigger, some famous person mentioning it, to make it take off and soar again. All that might yet come. And it might not. I want it to, of course, and will do what I can to shove it along. But I’m cool with whatever happens, either way. Ride the ride until it’s over. Then it’s done. Not before. You can’t make this stuff up, I figure.
And all that is good, all very wild and exciting, how the book’s hanging right in there. I’m astounded and grateful. But it wasn’t the strangest thing I saw this year.
It snuck up on me kind of slow in a dawning realization, the most startling thing I saw this year. I wasn’t looking for it. It wasn’t on my radar screen anywhere. But in the process of figuring out what was going on inside me, why I was making the choices I was making, of analyzing what makes me tick, it came to me. Took a while for it to sink in. But it did, over time. Over the last few months.
It’s a strange road that takes you back to the place you started from. Or a place you never knew you were before. The most startling thing I’ve realized this year was how much I am like my father. In many ways, but particularly when it comes to writing. That whole persona, of how you present your stuff, how you produce. I am him, because I do it like he did. Not in the obvious ways, as in how I live and what I write. We couldn’t be much more different there if we tried. But in the subconscious choices I make and have made, I am my Dad.
He wrote because he wanted to, not because he had to. Not to earn his living. I’m a little more sporadic than he was in his prime. He sat up late most nights, pounding away at his typewriter. I sit up late some nights, working at my computer. So I never produced anything remotely approaching his volume, but in this equation, that’s not that big a factor. He had plenty of things in life that kept him occupied, dozens of little businesses he launched and ran more or less haphazardly. I haven’t done that. His most successful business ever: Wagler Metals, where he sold metal roofing and siding. Today I work at a business that sells exactly the same stuff. He was well known in the Amish world. I have reached a broader audience outside the culture.
Dad didn’t care much what others thought. He just wrote. He wrote, and threw his stuff out there in his world. He never called himself a writer. And he didn’t write, to make his living. He just wrote. And he said it as he saw it. Well, within the confined boundaries of his culture, he did. Which was from a flawed perspective, of course. But whose perspectives aren’t flawed, now and then? Mine are. Because I’m human, as he was.
There are so many similarities that it’s freaky, when I think of it. And for me, it is also a strange and wonderful thing. I don’t care who you are. It’s pretty much a universal longing. You want the essence of the good things your father was to live inside you. Even if you couldn’t see those good things so much, way back.
There are, of course, certain aspects of his personality and his nature that I have chosen not to claim. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. I can still honor and respect him for what he was and who he was. It takes a lot of time, sometimes, for that clarity to reach your heart and head. Well, that’s how it was for me. I won’t speak for anyone else out there. But it does take time, because when you break away from all you have known, it’s pretty ingrained deep inside. You will never be like that, like the people who held you back. Especially your father. You won’t be like him. You won’t be that distant, that obstinate, that harsh and cold. And it’s OK to feel like that, too. It’s OK to grapple with those negatives.
That’s how it was for me. My guard was up, big time. I won’t be like he was. I won’t write to defend a lifestyle that’s indefensible. I won’t. It was hard, to break loose. It really was. It’s still so raw, sometimes, looking back.
And now I see how much like him I am.
Some of this stuff became clear to me as I was talking about it. Recently, on a radio interview, the host asked how I could write the book so respectfully. “You didn’t rip into those people back there in your life, the Amish,” he said. “How come not?”
And I thought about that. Ten years ago, I said, I probably couldn’t have written it like I did. Ten years ago, you would have read some bitterness, either openly or between the lines. Some claim you can read bitterness there, now. But I wrote it from a heart that wasn’t. And sure, there were places where my head may not have wanted to write sympathetically about the Amish. But overall, my heart did. And overall, the heart won. Because when your heart is calm and you write your heart, you don’t have to worry much about how it will all come out. It will come out right.
And now, I can see why it all came out as it did. I am my father, when it comes to defending what and who the Amish are. Not in apologetics, as he often wrote. And not the polemical stuff he cranked out right along. But in a broader sense, as an accurate portrayal to the world, I think our work is comparable. His view from inside. Mine from outside, having been there. The similarities are startling to me. All the way down to how I produce. All the way down to what I do for a living.
I am my father’s son. And, really, what’s not to celebrate about that?
A few weeks ago, I was telling my friend Shawn Smucker about all this over lunch one day. He listened and seemed a little amazed, as I was talking. But then he asked a simple question. Something I had not even considered. “Will you tell him? Will you tell your Dad these things?” And his question startled me.
I don’t know. Yeah, I guess I will, when I see him, I answered. He’s 91 years old. I don’t know if he’d grasp what I’m trying to say. But I’ll probably write it. He’ll read it. He likes to read my blogs, when he can. But yeah, you’re right. He does need to be told. I will in person, next time I see him.
In the meantime, though, I’m telling him here.
And that was 2012, a year of strange and wonderful roads. Roads I could not have imagined, roads that led through valleys and over mountains to places I could not have remotely conceived in my mind. All of which makes me one of the most optimistic people out there, when it comes to what 2013 might bring.
I don’t have to tell you that the world is in turmoil such as has not been seen in our lifetimes. It seethes and bubbles out there, the blackest evil in the darkest human hearts. We are sliding headlong into perdition, that’s pretty clear to those who are not deliberately blind. The forces close in tighter every day. You can see it, sense it, feel it.
I pay no attention to most of the noise. Like the annual dog and pony show of the “fiscal cliff” charade. The wealthy in this country had better prepare to get devoured. Because it’s coming, the ravenous insatiable beast of public envy, whipped to a mindless frenzy by Obama and his minions.
In areas that really matter, I do pay attention, though. The evil that is the state tightens the noose every day a little bit more. Encroaches, encroaches on our freedoms, all in the name of security. It lashes out in increasingly savage and destructive wars, murdering hundreds of thousands of innocents who have never done a thing to harm anyone. The boondoggle of ObamaCare is coming, soon to be followed by a real scarcity of quality medical care. And always the people cry “something must be done,” as one more unspeakable tragedy unleashes havoc in the land. The craven media march in lockstep, demonizing the common people for insisting on the right to self defense.
In Newtown, CT, those little innocent murdered children have been sacrificed over and over again on altars not made of stone, altars to the false god that is the state. Only in Orwellian doublespeak could a serious pitch be made for parents to disarm themselves to protect their children. The very concept goes against all we have learned in the long brutal slog through all of recorded history. Except we obviously haven’t learned, not as a society. Not these generations. We will, though, if this siren’s song is heard and heeded. One of the most cherished goals of any state is to disarm its citizens.
There are so many examples in history of the moment we’re in. I feel like some guy back in the mid 1930s, anywhere, who saw what was coming and said something to someone around him. And how nothing the guy could say had anything approaching a smidgen of hope to deflect onto a better path the march of history to wherever it will go. But with barely a smidgen of desperate faith that his words would make any difference to even a few persons, he still said it as he saw it, in his world. Because he had to.
I feel like that guy.
Through it all, though, I’m excited about the coming year. And no, I’m not making any resolutions. Most of those are futile, anyway. I might as well resolve for “world peace,” or some similarly vacuous slogan that is always safe to spout in polite company.
If one wish could be granted, though, my prayer would be that the Lord in His mercy would call my Mother home in 2013. She still remains in Aylmer, at my sister Rosemary’s home, still receding ever deeper into the confines of a dark cruel world that will not let her go. She curls up now in repose, they tell me, pulls her knees up to her chin. An instinctive returning to the womb, I think. We so yearn for her to be called home. Maybe this will be the year. I pray it will be.
And other than that, I’m excited about all that 2013 might hold. Eager and excited about all those strange and beautiful roads that will beckon. From just living, and from the book, and maybe from my writing. We’ll see what roads open up. I will walk them with gratitude and with joy. And, yeah, there will be a little grumbling, too, now and then, on those roads. That’s just how it is. But I will always walk with a heart that is free.
And that is my standing, year-round wish for everyone and anyone out there. That all would come to know what it is to be truly free.
Happy New Year to all my readers.
Some men have a den in their home, while
others just growl all over the house.
It kept pushing in on my mind back about a year ago. As I’d done for the previous, oh, four years or so, I tried to push it back. Ignore the thought. But it kept lurking there, on the fringes. And I finally just gave in and accepted the fact. OK, something would have to be done. I had no idea where to turn, but somehow, something or someone had better show up. It was time to get my house cleaned.
I live in an old house. Two story, brick. The upstairs is a separate apartment that has sat empty now for going on almost two years. I’ve had such vile luck with tenants that when the last guy left (he was the best of the lot, quiet, and always paid the rent on time), I decided not to actively solicit another one. I’d be silent and let the Lord bring somebody to me. Well, the Lord’s been pretty silent, too, about the matter. So the upstairs remains empty. In the meantime, I’ve gotten used to not having someone clumping about right above my head. It’s peaceful, that’s what it is. But that rent money sure would be nice. You can’t have it both ways, is what I’ve decided. And I’ll keep it this way until a better way shows up.
So I live downstairs, and I like my house. Sure, it’s old. Built sometime during the first Great Depression, near as I can tell from the deed. When all that crap hit the fan back in 2007, people told me. “Why don’t you get out of that house? It’s got tons of bad vibes. Bad memories. Just bad stuff overall. Sell it, and start over in a new place.” And I said no. I won’t be pushed out of my home. I won’t. I like it here. Maybe I was just exhausted. I don’t know. Anyway, I stayed. And, in one of the most amicable, attorney-free separations in history when it came to the actual divorce proceedings, I had the place appraised in 2009. Refinanced it, and bought out Ellen’s half. And now it’s my home, in my name. I like it here.
I’m probably about like 95% of guys out there who live alone, when it comes to keeping my living space clean. I don’t worry about it much. I mean, how many guys get down on their hands and knees and scrub the floor? None that I know of. And it’s not like it’s filthy dirty or anything, anyway. I vacuum, sweep the floors, chase down and capture all visible dust bunnies. Keep the sink halfway presentable, and so forth. Even scrub the bathroom, now and then. The place isn’t dirty, it’s just cluttered.
And it’s not like the rooms are a wreck, either. I pile stuff up right where it lands, mostly. And by stuff, I mean odds and ends of just about anything. Hiking gear. Shoes and boots. Jackets and hoodies. Ropes, backpacks, a decent assortment of knives, ammo, shooting gear, flashlights, camo duct tape, boxes of supplies, guy stuff. And the living room, where I write, it’s pretty much a man cave. Sheathed fantasy swords hang from two pillars. It’s comfortable, with loose stacks of books strewn haphazardly about. On the couch and on the floor and on my desk. Books of every type and flavor, plus a case or two of the one I wrote. And a couple of copies of every edition.
But I know where everything is when I need it. That’s the big thing, the important thing. It’s pretty much a lackadaisical system, but it works for me. I’ve always figured, it’s my house. When it comes right down to it, who else’s business is it, anyway? Yeah. No one’s.
But, because of the clutter, I’ve been shy almost to the point of paranoia about letting just anyone walk into my home. Only a few trusted people have unlimited access. My brother Steve pops in sometimes when he’s passing by anyway, to watch whatever game’s on. My close friend Paul Zook, too, wanders in randomly. As does my ex-brother-in-law, Paul Yutzy, when he’s passing through. None of them have ever so much as blinked an eye at the way the place looked. Which is why they’re always welcome. For most others, it’s simply not worth the energy of trying to make up excuses. So I don’t, by not letting them in.
And it’s not like the offers haven’t been made, to clean my house. Mostly from my Amish friends. “Oh, come now,” the women said soothingly. “It can’t be that bad. Let us come over and clean it for you. We’ll be happy to do that.” It’s a trick, I told them. You just want to come in and snoop. And go talk about what you saw. I’m on to your plot. Nope. Thanks, but nope. I’m good. I’ll get someone in to clean eventually. Some person that doesn’t know me, and won’t care how the house looks. Don’t you all fret about it. And no, I’m not paranoid or anything. And they looked very crestfallen, each time. In time, though, they gave up and quit nagging me.
Sadly, a cleaning lady will not just show up on her own. And the years passed, and my house had not been deep-cleaned since Ellen left, back in 2007. Then, late last year, I grumbled about it all at work. To no one in particular. Just talking. Surely there has to be someone out there, some nice Amish or Plain Mennonite girl, that I could hire to clean my house. And my coworker, Dave Hurst, heard me grumbling and spoke up. His wife, Ruth, had hired a Plain Mennonite girl to help around the house. Katie was her name, Dave said. She just got married. She works really hard for ten bucks an hour.
That sounded too good to be real. I nibbled at the bait. Ask your wife to ask Katie, I told Dave. I’ll pay her whatever she asks. See if it could work out. And a few days later, Dave told me, beaming. Katie had agreed. She would come and clean. Three hours at a stretch. And since she was a horse and buggy Mennonite and had no transportation, Ruth would drop her off and pick her up on Tuesday. And I was excited. This was what I was talking about. Some nice girl who didn’t know me from Adam. Who would just come in, do her job, and go on about her way.
And so it was that a few days later, I drove home over lunch to meet Ruth and Katie at my house. She was a beautiful young lady with a lovely smile, in patterned flowery dress and plain white head covering. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll scrub the kitchen floor by hand. Clean the counters and the sink and the bathroom. What all else did you have in mind?” And I showed her about my small house. This and this. Dust these things, if you get time. And I told her sternly. Whatever you see here stays with you. Don’t go talking about it. She smiled demurely. Of course she wouldn’t. I asked her then. How much do you want? How much an hour, to clean?
And she almost couldn’t face me. Dave had told me she worked for $10 an hour, which is nothing. Still, she piped up bravely. “Would $15 an hour be too much?” It was probably more than she’d ever asked for, from anyone else. I laughed. Of course it’s not too much, I said. I’ll gladly pay that. She smiled, relieved. I showed her where everything was, my cleaning supplies and such. And then I headed back to work.
That night, after the gym, I eagerly headed home. What would it be like, a clean house? I unlocked the door and stepped in. Lemon scent overwhelmed the place. The scent of clean. I walked through the kitchen, gaping. Everything was spotless. The floor, mainly. Scrubbed thoroughly by hand. But the sink, too, the counter and the kitchen cabinets. All of it glistened with clean. Clean, clean, clean. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. I just stood there and drank it all in. Heck, with a place like this, I could invite company if I were of a mind to. With head held high.
That first day we met at the house was the only time I ever saw Katie. We talked, now and then, when she called me with a question as she was cleaning. She came every three or four weeks, right along, always on a Tuesday. I left her check on the kitchen table, for three hours’ worth of work. Once, my cell phone rang when she was cleaning. How much would I charge her for a copy of my book? One of those copies just strewn about the house? Take it, I told her. You can have it. “Oh, are you sure?” she asked. “I’ll pay you for it.” Nope, I said. Take it. Gotta keep the maid happy. She laughed and thanked me.
And it was a beautiful thing, over the winter, right into spring. Leave a check on the kitchen table on a Tuesday morning once a month, and the house is magically clean that night. I loved walking in after she’d been there, knowing I’d smell that clean lemon scent. It was just a beautiful thing.
And it was all too beautiful to last, of course. Sometime early last summer, Katie quit coming. She and her husband were expecting their first child. She just didn’t have the time or energy to clean my house anymore. I understood, of course. But still, it was a sad day for me, when I heard that. It was the perfect setup. And now, poof, it was just gone.
And I settled back in to the way it was, before Katie ever showed up. All through the summer. Sure, I swept and vacuumed, and kept the place half decent. But the clutter, which Katie had pushed back, encroached again. All through the house. Stuff just stacked and piled haphazardly here and there. I was comfortable with it, as before. Still shy, though, of letting just anyone in. And I kept thinking, this time I can’t wait four years, to find another cleaner. I’ve got to get someone in, sometime soon. But nothing will happen until you make it happen.
The summer passed. And the fall. The kitchen floor was getting, well, in need of a good scrubbing. I grumbled at work. This time, my coworker Dave had no suggestions. A while back, he beamed and told me Katie had her baby. A little girl. Born healthy. She and her husband are doing well, moving right along. Still, she won’t clean anymore, for extra money. She can’t, now that the baby’s here. I was glad for her, for them. Still, that doesn’t do anything for my kitchen floor.
And it all seemed destined for another long stretch of frustration. This time, though, I didn’t sit around and wait as long. This time, I asked my Amish neighbors, the ones just down the road. Do they know of anyone who cleans houses? I had in mind they might guide me to some Amish spinster who does this sort of thing for a living. But no. They smiled. Yes, they knew of someone. A lady, just down the road from my house. An English lady, well, a Mennonite. But an English Mennonite. She cleans. Go see her. And I drove straight from my Amish friends’ house to the English Mennonite lady’s home. A farm. How in the world does a woman who lives on a farm have time to clean houses? I wondered.
The English Mennonite lady, Anne, met me at the door. Looked at me suspiciously. Uh, I was told you clean houses, I stammered. “Who told you that?” She asked. The Millers, just around the corner there, I said, trying to look as lost and helpless as possible. Their kids mow my lawn. I had a Plain Mennonite lady cleaning my house earlier this year, but she quit because she just had her first baby. I’m your neighbor, half a mile away. And Anne seemed open to the idea. “I don’t have time for any new jobs,” she said. “But you are so close, I just might have to take it. I’ll probably cost more than your last cleaner did, though.” Yes, yes, I know that, I said. That’s fine. Here’s my cell number. Call me and stop by to check it out. I’m totally flexible. She smiled and promised she would.
She didn’t call. Not that first week. Or the second. The third week, after I’d given up, my cell phone rang one day. Unknown number. I answered. It was Anne. She wanted to stop by one evening and check out my house. It’s great to hear from you, I said. I’d almost given up. We settled on a date and time.
And she came, the other Saturday evening. I showed her about the house. It’s important to me that you keep my privacy, I said. What you see here stays here. She smiled and politely told me that’s her policy for all her cleaning jobs. “I can de-clutter your house,” she said helpfully as we were winding down. Declutter. Is that even a word? Do it all you want, decluttering in the kitchen, I answered. Don’t worry about the storage room, there. And don’t worry about the living room. That’s where I write. I don’t mind clutter. I just want the place to be clean, clutter or no clutter. “OK,” she said. “I’ll text you when I can make it over. It’ll be before Christmas.”
A little more than a week later, on a Monday morning, I left my front door unlocked. Anne would come that morning, so I figured it was safe. On the kitchen table, I left a check. And a house key, for her to keep. And a signed copy of my book. Might as well get that out of the way, before she sees all those copies strewn about and thinks to ask how much I want for one. Gotta keep the maid happy. Preemptively, I figured.
That night, when I got home and walked into the house, the blasting smell of clean greeted me. Fresh. Scented. Lemony. All was as it should be. Everything was spotless and shining. The floor was scrubbed. The kitchen sink sparkled. The bathroom gleamed. And the kitchen was about half decluttered. More of that will come, I think. Decluttering. And I’m totally cool with that. I think we’re good, here.
And it’s almost Christmas again. I’m usually a Bah Humbug kind of guy, but this year I actually feel some strange odd little prickings inside. Must be the Christmas spirit. I never get carried away much, with gift giving and all. Expect none and give few, that’s my motto. And I’m pretty content with that.
Every season, though, I think back fleetingly to those days in Bloomfield, the first few years we lived there. How it was, after I turned 16, and started running with the small youth group. Bloomfield was just a baby of a settlement back then, with around two dozen families, give or take a few either way. All that would change in the next few years as the community grew, but those first few years were special, well, just because they are.
I remember the biting cold on a moonlit December evening after the chores were done, how sometimes we struggled through deep snow up the steep hill off to the west side of the lane between our home and Joseph’s house, dragging our sleds. And how we rode them down the hill at high speed, how we howled and whooped and hollered. And got up to do it all over again. And again. I remember how still and bright and cold the land was. Silent, except for our voices. And how we walked, exhausted and exhilarated, toward the glowing windows of the warm house, where Mom was bustling in the kitchen over the hot stove, fixing supper.
Those first winters in Bloomfield were bitterly, bitterly cold. And the youth, with all the exuberance that only youth can know, went caroling every Christmas around the community. The steel-rimmed buggy wheels squealing through the packed snow, we’d clatter from one house to the next. Stand outside the front door in a tight little huddled group, and sing. Christmas carols. All about the community we trundled, stopping at most Amish places and even some English ones. And I remember that close feeling of belonging, the sheer joy of just being out and about with good friends. We sang and sang, our breaths steaming in the frigid air, and sang some more. Always wrapping up with We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
And sometimes we were invited into the homes for steaming hot chocolate and fresh baked cookies. We ate and drank and chattered and laughed and then walked back out into the cold and headed to the next place. Until we reached the last house, and sang there. Then took off through the cold white winter night to our warm homes and beds.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like that. And I wonder if I could sing like that again, standing outside in the bitter cold of a December night. If such a thing, such innocent joy, would even be possible. I don’t know. It’s tough to recapture the essence of such things, once you let them go. That’s just how it is. In the meantime, though, I can let the memories speak my heart.
Merry Christmas to all my readers.
Postnote: A few words about the unspeakably senseless tragedy in Newtown, CT, today. I’m not a parent, and in such moments as these, I’m glad sometimes I’m not. It’s simply incomprehensible to see and absorb the aftermath of such evil. There will be intense mourning for a long, long time, for those families that lost a little child. We can only mourn with them from a distance.
From my perspective, from my world view, a host of observations come to mind about cause and effect, about the desperate wickedness that lurks inside the human heart. But right now, I think, it’s probably wise not to say a whole lot more. Soon enough there will be a time to speak. At this moment, I want to respect in silence those who grieve a loss I cannot fathom.