October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full,
the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness…the sun goes down in blood and
pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.
It always slides right in, that feeling in the fall. I’ve never written all that much about it. But when October comes, I always feel the shiver and chill of those frosty mornings again, back in my childhood. It was a time of harvest, then the plow. The shorn fields empty now, of their crops. And the darkness creeping in, earlier and earlier each night, as the sun sank low in the west. It was when we first did the evening chores by lantern light, in the comfortable odorous warmth of the barn. It always stirs the memories in me, old October does.
Here in Lancaster County, I am far from the fields of my childhood. Here, I watch the teams plugging along in the fields, from a distance. And the great old barns sag with the fruits of the harvest. Hay bales in the loft, the silo filled to the top. And in the outbuildings, great sheaves of tobacco hanging from the rafters. I was always taught that raising tobacco was evil. But I have grown to deeply respect what that crop means in the annals and traditions of Lancaster County.
And this October, I figured to write a blog about October. But when crunch time came last week, I sat and fidgeted. How do you write about a specific month, without getting all hifalutin’ and deliberately “literary?” Friday came, and I passed. No blog this week. And I sat down the other night, to try again. And I thought. Just tell the stories you remember, the stories that came down in October. So I wrote out the first thing that came, the thing closest to my mind, because it happened just a few days ago.
I saw the number on my cell phone when it rang, last Wednesday. I was busy at work, but I answered. It was Esther, the Amish lady I take a gallon of raw fresh Jersey milk to every two weeks. And she makes four quarts of pure natural unsweetened yogurt from that milk. She keeps two, and I take two. Somehow, the Saturday before, things got clogged up a bit. And now it was mid-week, and I still didn’t have my yogurt. Yes, Esther? I said. And she spoke, and I could hear something different in her voice. Something flat and serious and far and full of wonder and very calm.
“Well, your yogurt is ready,” she said. “I’m sorry it took so long, this week. You can stop by tonight and pick it up. I won’t be home, but you know where it is in the fridge.” There was a little pause, then. And she spoke again, about what she really wanted to tell me. I had no idea what that might be. “Yesterday, they had Big Church, over in our son Samuel’s district,” she said. Yeah, I said. I know it’s Big Church season, here in October. You gotta get that out of the way, before the weddings can start. “Yes,” she said. “And yesterday, over in Samuel’s district, they ordained a preacher.” And I knew instantly and instinctively what she was going to say next. And lo, she spoke the words.
“The lot hit Samuel,” she said.
And then I couldn’t help but groan, soft and long. Oh, my, I said. Oh, my. Oh, no. Oh, my. I know Esther and I know all her family. Her husband, David. I always stop by, every couple of weeks or so, just to catch up with whatever it is we have to talk about. And to pick up my yogurt, of course. I know their sons, too, and their daughter. I know them all. Samuel is the middle son. Around thirty years old, I’d guess. Quiet, lean of stature. Intense, intelligent. Well-read. When I see him, we always chat a bit about world affairs. And football. He knows I love football, so he always asks about how my Jets are doing.
And Esther told me a little bit about how it all came down, that Tuesday. If they need to ordain a preacher around here, they try to have the church service on a Monday or a Tuesday, or sometimes a Saturday. That’s so the other preachers from surrounding districts can come and witness and offer support. And that Tuesday morning, Esther told me, she went over to Samuel and Naomi’s house, to take care of the children, while they went off to Big Church. Nothing much was said about the upcoming ordination, I don’t think. You don’t talk much about such a thing beforehand. It’s just not done in the Amish world, any musings about maybe becoming a preacher. If the lot hits your son, there will be plenty of time to talk about it all later. And if it doesn’t, well, then there wasn’t much to talk about, anyway, one way or the other.
She stayed there with the children all day, Esther told me. And before Samuel and his wife came home, someone had stopped in to tell her. The lot had hit her son. And when they came home, Samuel and Naomi, she just broke down and wept. “He hugged me. Comforted me. I mean, he’s the one who was just ordained, and now he’s comforting his Mom,” she said. That’s exactly how it should be, I said. It’s a heavy thing, for any parent to absorb, that the lot for preacher hit their son.
And I realized I was hearing something rare and fine, right there in that moment. I was hearing the story of an Amish ordination from a mother’s perspective, something I had never really considered before. And Esther spoke bravely about her son. “He has a gentle spirit,” she told me. “And he wants to see the gospel preached. I think he will be alright.” And I encouraged her, as I could. Of course he will be alright.
But I couldn’t help but groan aloud again. Oh, my. Oh, my. This is such a life-changing thing. But I caught myself after a few groans. Samuel will rise up, and he will be fine, I told her. I know that. From her response, I knew she knew that, too. It’s a fine thing, and it’s a gentle thing, but it’s there, the heaviness and the subdued pride of it. I remember the feeling when my brother Joseph got ordained, back in 1978. We had a preacher in our family, now. And nothing could ever take that fact away. You have a preacher in the family now, I told Esther. That’s an honorable thing, and a somber thing. I had to get back to work, then. We said so long and hung up. But I held these things in my heart, and pondered them.
I’ve written about it a few times before, way back, in this blog. And it’s mentioned, too, in the book. It’s one of the most intense and draining things any Amish man will ever face, or ever endure. Or any Amish couple, or extended family. The making of a preacher. The selecting of God’s chosen one by lot. It strikes randomly, seems like, and it strikes like lightning. And it’s all so brutal and so intense.
There may be other groups out there that ordain a preacher just like the Amish do. Other plain groups, like the Beachys, ordain by lot. But it’s different. Those groups usually vote for who will be in the lot, say, at a Friday night church service. The names are called, of the chosen ones. But the actual ordination isn’t held until a few nights later, usually a Sunday night. And in the interim, the preachers talk in depth to all the men in the lot. One by one, personally. Does the brother feel he has a calling to preach? Will he accept the calling and the responsibility, if the lot hits him? And I’ve always thought. The Beachy guys have an out. All they have to do is say, no. There is no calling, inside, to preach. And just like that, they are excused from the lot. Home free. No book to pull. No terrifying little slip of paper to jump out at you.
Not so, the Amish. In an Amish ordination, it’s wham, bam. Your name gets called, and you struggle to your feet and slowly approach the table where the books are. You and four or five other intensely burdened men. Everyone looks on, all quiet, you can feel the oppressive pressure. And then you pull a book. Any book, it doesn’t have to be in any particular order. You sit there, frozen. And then the bishop comes along and takes your book. Unties the string. Opens it.
And if that little slip of paper is there, on page 770, you ain’t got no choice. You will be ordained. Right there, on the spot. It’s one of the most brutally intense experiences any Amish man (and his wife) will ever endure, to be in the lot. Whether or not the lot actually hits him.
And there have been tales and legends passed down, over the years. I remember a story from my childhood. There was an ordination, and the lot fell on a young man. He wasn’t all that bright, and he most certainly had no intention of allowing any bishop to ordain him. Before anyone could stop him, he bolted. Out the door, some say he jumped out a window. However he got out, he disappeared into the deepening shadows of late afternoon. “We will let him go,” the bishop intoned calmly. “He will come back.”
The young man hid out at home for a few weeks, if I remember right. And then, one Sunday, he showed up at church, a little sheepishly. All right, I’m here. Ordain me. The bishop did just that, and nothing more was ever told or heard, that the young man did not honorably fulfill his duties as a preacher.
And then I remember hearing this story preached, in Bloomfield. I even think it might have been told by my brother Joseph, in a sermon. Somewhere, a long time ago, there was an ordination in an Amish community far away. And the lot hit a young man. Maybe he was more like middle aged. I think he was ordained, there on the spot. But the man refused to preach. “I cannot preach,” he said. And over and over again. “I cannot preach.”
He remained obstinate, insisting he cannot preach. So the Lord took him at his word. And the time came that the man was struck dumb. He became mute. And he never could speak another word, and never did, all his life. That’s the story I heard told. And it all happened because he kept proclaiming he cannot preach.
And what if there is only one person in the lot? I had never heard of such a thing, but I guess it’s happened. Here in Lancaster County, back in the mid 1800s, there was an ordination where only one man got the allotted three votes needed to get stuck in the lot. The preachers and bishops conferred, and decided to go ahead and just ordain him. So they did that, and no ill ever came from any of it, that I heard told. And I don’t know if they just ordained him, or if they made him pull one book, so they could open it and find the little slip of paper on page 770. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if it happened that way, with the book.
But my friend, Amos, the horse dentist, tells me of another time when there was only one man in the lot. He’d heard the story told, or maybe he’d read it in a book somewhere. It happened in the Honey Brook area, in the mid 1800s. It must have been a pretty small group, there in the district, to be ordaining a preacher. Because only one man got the three votes needed to get in. The preachers and bishops conferred, and this time, they decided to step off the reservation a bit, all on their own. They decided to include another man, a man who had garnered only two votes. You needed three to get in. And that day, the Amish bishop went against all that was ever taught or respected in the annals of that culture. He inserted himself over God. The two men were named, called up. The legitimate candidate, and the one who had only two votes.
And, of course, we all know what happened next. The lot hit the guy with only two votes. And all would have been fine, except somehow, one of the preachers talked, down the road. The preacher told of what had happened that day, and how the lot had hit a man who shouldn’t even have been in it. And of course, too. The poor guy who had been ordained heard the story. He did not take it well. He refused the calling of being a preacher, since he had been ordained illegitimately. Just flat out refused to preach, or walk with that preachers upstairs to the Obrote. He insisted on sitting with the regular folks, not up front with the preachers.
And in time, the pain festered so deep inside his tortured soul that it actually affected his health. He became quite bitter. Not that I blame him. Who wouldn’t? He certainly never was an effective preacher. Who could be, in a system such as that, when he knew his ordination was a fraud?
And it all got pretty contentious and heated, I guess, at least according to what Amos the horse dentist told me. The man was shunned for not being willing to “obey the will of the Lord.” What will? He asked. You stuck me in that lot when you had no business to. I’m not a preacher, and never was. And in time, he left the Amish. He never returned, either to preach or anything else.
And here, the telling of the story gets very strange. The stores the Amish tell, after a death. I’ve heard the whispers of such things, all my life, from stories of people who left the Amish and went off and lived a sinful and worldly life.
Here’s where it gets all Amish, the telling of it. When the man died, years later, they placed him in a coffin in his home. And the people came to see him, to pay their last respects, such as they were. And then darkness fell. And still people came to see the body. And strangely, throughout that evening and all through that night, the lights would not stay lit, anywhere in the house. No matter how many times they were re-lighted.
After ordinations, a much more joyful season comes rolling into Lancaster County. Weddings. They start right after Big Church, in mid October. Every Tuesday and Thursday, all through November and the first half of December. The buggies clog the early morning roads. A whole lot of people gathering at a whole lot of places for a whole lot of celebrations. And thus the next generation of Lancaster County Amish is assured.
And every fall, I kind of keep an eye out, for my builders at work. I ask them. How many weddings are you going to, this year? And yeah, it’s because I want to know, and I want to make conversation. But mostly, it’s because I’m hoping that somewhere, somehow, I can snag me some Roasht. I usually manage to beg some from someone, somewhere. This year, in mid November, the daughter of one of my best friends is getting married. I figure to attend the evening services. And I figure to raid the large tub of Roasht in the cooler. We’ll see how it goes.
A small bunny trail, right here at the end. Thomas Wolfe’s “October passage” is among the most famous of all seasonal descriptions in all of American literature. And it’s what triggered this blog. I make no secret of it. The man is my hero, when it comes to what real writing is. Just recently, though, I read a short, vitriolic screed where a real obscure critic just went off on a tirade. I mean, the man went ballistic. And he savagely excoriated Wolfe for even daring to have written one sentence. Wolfe was a drunk, and he couldn’t go home again, and he wrote the worst prose ever published, according to his primary biographer, a shiftless shyster who apparently won a Pulitzer Prize somewhere along the way for something he wrote.
That’s what the obscure critic huffed and raged. Well, now. I’ve never heard of the shyster biographer before. Never heard his name, and I’m sure not telling it here. I’ve sure heard Thomas Wolfe’s name, though. Bottom line is this. The books of the shiftless shyster never sold. Wolfe’s books did, and still do.
Show me any writer of Wolfe’s generation who didn’t drink, and I’ll show you a boatload of forgotten prose that no one buys or reads. Back to the obscure critic. His problem is, he has labored tirelessly for decades under the odd delusion that somehow his writings will be indispensable to all the world a hundred years down the road. Thing is, his books don’t sell now. They never have sold, other than a few hundred copies he managed to shake off on his “Remnant.” I don’t know why he would imagine that anyone will remember his name a hundred years from now, or why that seems so important to him. Because that’s a long time, for history to remember anyone’s name.
Wolfe is gonna make that cut, though. He died in 1938, at the painfully tragic young age of thirty-seven, eighteen days before his thirty-eighth birthday (who knows, what all the man could have produced, had he been given even ten more years?). People will still be reading his stuff in 2038. And beyond. It doesn’t matter how many small, savage critics go after him, when they’re really going after someone else.
Thomas Wolfe didn’t consider himself to be indispensable to any single thing. Or any cause. No real writer does, because you can’t speak to a reader’s heart from a heart filled with such hubris. His Magnum Opus was published posthumously, from his notes. You Can’t Go Home Again. I don’t think he cared that much whether or not he ever got published again. He just lived and wrote. And, yeah, he drank, I’m sure. I mean. Duh. How prissy are we going to get, here?
And if people read my book or any of my other stuff after I’m gone, well, I’d sure like that. I’d like that a lot. It won’t make much difference, though, in the end. Eventually, pretty much every word anyone writes will turn to dust and ashes. And it doesn’t matter how desperately we want to be remembered, for all that wisdom we spouted. The bottom line is this. All we ever were or ever wrote will be as forgotten as if we had never passed through this broken world. There will be no memory of who we were, or what we said.
All else is vanity, and idol worship.Share