May 1, 2015

Cultural Upheaval; The Amish Countdown

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm


The Times, They Are a-Changin’

—Bob Dylan, lyrics

I’m not quite sure how it all came up. It was the setting, probably. A Tuesday night, a week or so back. The Bible Study is still chugging along. Or trudging along, depending on how you look at it. Every Tuesday night (unless Reuben and I are both out of town, so there is no one there to host.), there’s a few people upstairs at the office, listening to a Tim Keller sermon. The official Bible Study. It’s still happening, there. And it’s always a real good thing. Sometimes it’s two people. Sometimes it’s six. The most ever was nine. So far, we’ve held on to the schedule. But it’s what happens afterward, that’s what triggered this little tale, right here.

Because after the Bible Study, every Tuesday night, I go to Vinola’s to hang out with the guys who won’t come to a Bible Study. The guys who will pretty much only hang out with you at the bar. Not across the board, that statement does not apply. A few times, a friend or three made it from the Bible Study to Vinola’s. But mostly it’s the guys who won’t.

I don’t judge them for it, the people who will meet me at the bar, but not at the Bible Study. Maybe it’s too far to drive. It’s about halfway across the county. Or maybe they just think they got better things to do, than to come and listen to Tim Keller preaching. Whatever. Their reasons are their own. But it’s developed into a new little tradition, between me and a few good friends. We’ll meet at Vinola’s around 8:30, every Tuesday night. And I try to make it, and always have, except once, last month, when I had a savage cold and could hardly breathe, let alone speak. That one time, I missed it. But I’ve been there, every other time I was around.

It’s a ragtag group of four to seven people, all guys. The most ever was around eight or nine, I think. It’s a real weird mixture, mostly. Not everyone is always there, every Tuesday. But the group loosely consists of a couple of atheists, a couple of agnostics, and a couple of Christians. And we always sit at the same table in the same back room. We have a few drinks, and maybe some finger food of some kind, or a bowl of soup. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, and we’re comfortable around each other. And nothing, I mean no subject matter, is off the table. We’ve discussed a lot of things over the past number of months. Including what it means to have faith that there is a God. Or what it looks like when you don’t.

We’ve gotten a little loud, more than a few times. Well, I think we’re always louder than your average group, don’t matter what we’re talking about. It’s totally OK, though. Because it’s always real, our talk. We speak it as we see it. And there’s a lot of clashing going on, sometimes. You have to have some faith in each other, when you’re talking in a group like that. And you go right down to the core of who you are and what you believe. It’s been tense, more than a few times, too. Oh, yes, it has been. There’s been some yelling going on, coming from every side. But in the end, so far, we have always managed to part ways in peace. At least, I think so.

It’s not always loud and boisterous like that, though. We get along pretty well, most often. And we discuss far more benign things, too, like genealogy, and the history and future of the Amish. All of us emerged from Plain blood, somewhere. And that’s what came up, the other Tuesday. Where are the Amish headed, as a culture? How long will they be able to hang onto their plainness, their identity? And I did what I always do, when that particular subject comes up. I reached into my shirt pocket, and plucked out my iPhone. This little dude right here, I said. This is going to have a major impact on Amish culture and identity. And I’m not talking down the road. I’m talking in the near future, certainly within a generation. And I’m talking major upheaval. There’s a big split coming, and it’s not that far away.

It’s kind of strange, when you look back on history. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Amish were not that different from the people around them in regular society. They looked about the same, dressed about the same as the English people around them. They had modern farming equipment, for the times. Back then, it was common for many English women to wear head coverings of some kind, so the Amish weren’t unique in that, either.

It was only when the automobile came along, and got affordable to the common man, it was then that the Amish made their fateful decision. A decision that would set them apart, both visually and in practice of lifestyle, from all the world around them. They would not drive a car. They would stick with the horse and buggy. At first, it wasn’t all that big a deal. Buggies and cars shared the road. Cars were the aberration. But after a generation or two, well, it wasn’t like that anymore. Buggies were the aberration. And the Amish stuck out. Big time. Cars were whizzing down the roads, all around them. But still, they insisted on keeping things like they’d always been. And as time passed, they were increasingly seen as odd and silly people. I mean, look at them. Plugging along, jamming up the roads, and you can’t see their buggies at night, what with those little lanterns they got shining weakly from one side or both. Talking way back, here. Except maybe for the Swartzentrubers. I think they’re still stuck, way back there.

But still, whatever level it was going on, the Amish persisted in being who they were. It was ingrained, by now, in the cultural mindset. They would not touch the unclean things of the world. Like cars and electricity and telephones and such. They would not do it.

I’ve said it before, I think. When I was a child, the Amish weren’t viewed as the high and holy pastoral people they are viewed as today. Nah. It was a far cry from that. There wasn’t a whole lot of adulation going on, about how beautiful and peaceful that lifestyle is. Back then, we were seen as second class citizens, pretty much. People looked at us all funny. Why are you dressed like that, and why are you driving a horse and buggy? None of it made any sense in that world, and there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy for any of it.

In my lifetime, though, that all changed. I saw it change. Change from scorn and derision to all kinds of lofty rhetoric about how peaceful the Amish live. I look at all that, a little cockeyed. I’ve been in both worlds. And I’m telling you. You can’t trust the praise, and you can’t trust the adulation of a fickle English world. You better not. Because that world is all about fame and the worship of fame. And I gotta say. The Amish haven’t trusted any adulation of a fickle English world. Not saying they don’t feel a little proud, when it gets too thick and gooey, the praise about how right they live. That’s just human. But whatever pride they might feel, you’ll never, never see it. They just plug along, like they always have. It doesn’t have to make sense to you, what they believe. They’ll believe it anyway. And they’ll be different, anyway. I’m most proud of that trait, of all the traits of my people.

And right along about when it all crested, the adulation of the Amish, right about then is when my book came stumbling out into the market. I look back on how that all happened, and I marvel more every day. It was just impossible. I was a total unknown. With not much of a platform at all. I’ve never worried much about “platform.” It’s just something that publishers tell their authors they better have. Go out there, all breathless, and tell the world. Come, and look at me. I’m a writer. I’ve always deeply and instinctively recoiled from how you have to be all aware of your platform. And how you have to keep hustling to increase your readership. You write. If what you wrote is worth reading, it’ll get read. It’s as simple as that. You don’t worry that much about whether you get published or not. Well, I fretted a little. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. But to calm those worries, I went and posted a new blog now and then. Kept writing. Mostly, it’s like this, in the end. If you’re gonna write, you’ll write anyway. Whether the world will ever see much of anything you wrote makes no real difference. You’ll write anyway.

Well, that was a bunny trail, some of that. But this is my blog, so I guess I can go down whatever trails I want to. Getting back, to somewhere close to where I started from, here. We got to talking at Vinola’s about who the Amish have been, historically. They have been a culture (and no, I will not label them a cult) that has chosen to separate itself from much of the outside world. And I got no problem with that. Leave people alone, to believe what they want. I am very proud of my heritage. Very proud, especially when it comes to how implacably my people stand against the state, whenever they feel it necessary. There are very few groups around, large or small (and the Amish are a very small group) who have stood up to the government like the Amish have. The beautiful thing is, it doesn’t matter to them, if it makes any sense to anyone else or not. They will stand against any force. Quietly, yes. Meekly, yes. But persistently, always.

It’s pretty basic, how the Amish have traditionally separated themselves. No cars. No electricity. No telephones in the house, you have to have a little phone shack outside. And those three things have held up real consistent, for generations. It’s just who they were. People who don’t believe in owning any of those things. And for all anyone ever thought, it was just who they would always be. I don’t think there was ever any doubt about that, at least in the generation I’m in, and the one behind and before me. The thing is, each generation looks at the world it’s in, and imagines it will always be like that. And often, it’s true, for a few more generations. The world stays pretty much the same. And then, sometimes, some major changes come rocking along a lot faster than anyone could have imagined.

From today, I look back at the unclean things my friends and I latched onto, way back when we were running around. It was an ancient age, back then, I guess. It’s stuff you’d find in a time capsule, the contraband we had. Little transistor radios, with a strap, so you could hook it onto your wrist. That was the smallest thing in our arsenal. Then it was 8-track tapes, and 8-track tape players. Big, bulky stuff. And later, it was the early version of a boom box. A large radio. And then cassette players. We adapted all this stuff to where it could be hooked up to the twelve-volt batteries in our buggies. It was all stuff that was real hard to hide, too.

And I wrote a scene about all that in the book, where Dad got up real early one morning after I got home real late. And he snuck a feed bag with a bunch of 8-track tapes right out of the back of my buggy. I should have hidden that bag in the hayloft the night before, when I got home. I should have. I kicked myself a hundred times, later. But, that night, I was just too tired. So I didn’t.

Kind of a funny little aside, here. When I was up in Aylmer to see Dad last fall, we got to talking about a few scenes in the book. And I asked him about those tapes in that feed bag. Do you remember that? I asked. I’ve always wondered. What did you do with those tapes? Burn them? I always figured you incinerated them in the water heater stove.

Looking back, it was almost surreal, that we could even have that conversation. It was like two old enemy warriors, almost fondly discussing the battlefields of long ago. He sat there and stroked his long gray beard and chuckled. “No,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them, so I walked down to Joseph’s house. It was early in the morning, just after daybreak. I told him what was going on, and how I have this bag full of something I found in Ira’s buggy. I don’t know what to do with this.”

And he claimed Joseph told him. “Just leave the bag here. I’ll take care of it.” So Dad left the bag and began walking back up the lane to our home. And he told me. “I turned and looked back, and there was all this hot black smoke coming out of the chimney of Joseph’s house. Something was really burning, I thought to myself. So I guess Joseph took care of that bag for me.”

I laughed. And he laughed, too. Well, those are some small details that sure are interesting, I said. I never knew that. I guess I’ll have to ask Joseph about all that, next time I see him. Which I completely forgot to do, when I saw him in Pinecraft in February.

There is a point to that little bunny trail. Well, I think so, anyway. We had all that bulky stuff that was hard to hide and easy to smash and burn, if we got caught. If it were today, I’d have an iPod. A little sliver of technology not much bigger than a credit card. And that iPod would store more songs than I could have hidden in 8-track tapes in five hundred paper feed bags. Dad would have lit a real bonfire with five hundred feed bags. Maybe there would have been a neighborhood weenie roast, or some such thing. What I’m saying is this. That’s the technology, the iPod, that young Amish kids have today. So affordable, so easy to hide. And so much harder to give up, when the time comes to “straighten up and settle down.”

There’s another little item out there that will affect the Amish a lot more than just a simple iPod. And that’s the smartphone. A cell phone, yeah, which helps everyone stay connected. But so much more than that. With a smartphone, you’re not only connected to your buddies. You’re connected to the World Wide Web. The internet. And Facebook. You get that phone as a young Amish teenager, and you are connected to the whole world on a computer more powerful than anything on the market even ten years ago. Against such a vast ocean of temptations, who can expect any Amish youth to ever really give it up and settle into the culture? To “straighten up and settle down?”

Some have the strength to give it all up, when the time comes, I guess. At least, so far. But a lot of others don’t. The thing is, a lot of Amish youth are not giving up that technology, when they join the church. I’m talking about Lancaster County, here. I can’t speak first hand of other communities, because I don’t have that much exposure to any Amish place other than Lancaster. I’ll take a bet, though, that what I’m seeing here is happening to some degree in a lot of Amish settlements that have no clue as to what’s about to hit them. Around here, I’m connected to the Amish world. I know what’s going on. And I’m telling you, there is some serious upheaval coming in that Amish world, sometime before too long. There just is.

Here, in Lancaster County, the cell phone (and smartphone) has pretty much been accepted as the norm by the business community. There’s been some muttering and some movement among some Bishops, to clamp down on it all. But that horse left the barn long ago. You gotta be connected, to compete. I can talk, firsthand, too, about the cell phones. I work with Amish crews, at Graber. There has to be a cell phone, somewhere, for me to connect with them when I need to. And for them to connect with me. That’s all there is to it, these days.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I got no bones to pick, with the Amish. I’m not hostile to them. I’m simply observing, and, yes, I’m simply fascinated. But there’s no moral equation involved, for me. What happens will happen. The culture will move and morph when and where it will. And I’m fine, with whatever happens, and whatever the Amish end up being.

It’s just how it is. I’m not criticizing. I’m not moaning. I’m just observing. And this is how I see it. If you’re Amish, and if you’re old enough, you can probably withstand the pressures. If you’re a businessman, married, with a family, you can hang on and make sense of who you are and what you are. But I’m talking about the youth. There will come a day when they will look at that smartphone in one hand, and the horse and buggy they’re driving down the road, on the other. And it’s going to hit them, or at least a whole lot of them. That horse and buggy just don’t make a whole lot of sense. Not when you’re connected to the whole world. It just can’t. And it won’t.

There’s some major upheaval coming. I’m not saying the Amish will disappear. There will always be a remnant that will hold back. At least for a few more generations, and even then, there will be a remnant that will hold back again. Eventually, though, throughout history, almost all cultural groups get absorbed into the mainstream around them.

And with the lure of today’s technology, the Amish are as close to that precipice as they’ve ever been.

A few thoughts, here, in closing. This week, last year, Mom was released from all her pain on this earth. They told me how it all came down, that Monday morning. As the sun rose, her breath of life faded, then expired, and she left this world for a far better place. I look back on it all, and I remember vividly the mixture of emotions that flooded me that moment. The feeling of deep relief, that her silent suffering in the long dark night of Alzheimer’s was finally, finally over. And the feeling of almost indescribable loss, that the only mother I’ll ever have was gone. It seems so close, in some ways, that morning, a year ago. And in some ways, it seems so far away.

She suffered so much. And it took her so long, to get to where she could leave us for a better place. I remember how I raged at God, the night before. Why are You keeping her here, on this earth? You know she loved and served and suffered all her life. You know that. Just take her home.

I don’t think my rage had anything to do with it. But the very next morning my mother was called home. And I think back to how we all came together, the family clan. From all over. To mourn her passing. To grieve the loss of who she was. And for me and Nathan, well, it was the two sons who hurt her the most, those two sons placed roses on her grave, after everyone had cleared out. It wasn’t something we had long planned ahead. It just happened.

And it settled in me this week, a little bit, the heaviness of it all. If I could, I would tell my mother, face to face, how sorry I am at how senselessly and how callously I hurt her, way back in my youth. It’s neither here nor there, now, I know. But still, this week, I felt that sorrow seeping in again. And I know she knows what I would tell her, from where she is.

We all mourned her, back a year ago. The matriarch of the clan. Dad mourned her, too. He seemed so lost, without his life’s mate. His wife, my mother, a woman he took for granted almost all her life. Until he saw she was leaving him, slipping away. He didn’t take her for granted then. No. He tried to keep her with him, for as long as he could. It was so heart-rending to watch. I don’t know if he ever quite realized what he had squandered. It was always all about him. Now he’s an old man. Now he valued her, when she didn’t know what was going on. Now, after all those years.

And he wept and grieved her after she died. An old man, all alone now. And then he almost got taken from us last July, from a severe infection in his leg. I mean, the man came that close to joining Mom. But he didn’t. He held on. And when his health improved and he came back, something had changed, pretty drastically. It seemed like some of his memories had been burned out of him. He wasn’t missing Mom all that much, anymore. “She’s gone,” that’s what he said when her name came up. “We can’t bring her back. She’s gone. She’s buried.”

Yes. She is gone. And yes, she is buried. We did that as a family. And I can feel all of it, the loss of it, from here, today. And this summer, sometime soon, the family will gather once again. This time, to honor Mom again. The family will plant her simple gravestone, complete with the information of who she was. That’s pretty much all the Amish put on gravestones. Just the bare facts.

Ida Mae (Yoder) Wagler, wife of David Wagler. And there will be the dates of when she was born, and when she died. Unspoken, on the gravestone, will be this message.

She was deeply loved by all her children.



  1. See dear friend, now you know why you went through the winter blues, it was just missing your mom. You’re only human and feel pain. She must have been a wonderful woman who forgave you long ago and only wanted happiness for you. She knew you loved her and that is all that mattered.

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — May 1, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

  2. I may not live long enough to see the results of the smartphone in Pinecraft. But I can easily imagine the old men and women sitting around checking their phones for messages from their children and grandchildren. It is just the way it is going to be for it has already started being that way.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — May 1, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

  3. Another awesome blog, but the comments were the best!! Whatever we may change, our parents are the best thing in the whole world!

    Comment by Jayme Cutting — May 1, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

  4. I agree with you completely the Amish lifestyle is quickly changing. I see many who have already made the move and many more will follow. The world is changing quickly and the smart phone is one example. (Very difficult to take back once it is opened.)

    Comment by Linda Ault — May 2, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

  5. Whoa there city Ambo. Back up the wagon. You’re moving way, way too fast with the iPod stuff. I’m still working on the rubber tire thing with the locals. (I make them laugh that I have an improvement “to do” list.) Either way, I don’t see open change coming anytime soon here. What goes on in the barn, stays in the barn. Including microwaving popcorn. :)

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — May 2, 2015 @ 9:37 pm

  6. Awesome blog.i’m sorry for the loss of your are blessed to have such wonderful memories of her.God bless you.

    Comment by Joyce morrow — May 2, 2015 @ 11:16 pm

  7. Very thoughtful about the Amish. I guess I could see someone coming in to be very popular and sell lots of tickets and tracts by claiming “the prince of the power of the air” is behind cordless technology (and go from there). I’m not meaning to mock; my serious point is the defensive viewpoint versus the Bible’s constant viewpoint of HOPE and a more positive future. Not determinedly, but on the basis of people turning back, even if it takes some supenatural saber-rattling to get us there. And that little problem of pessimism drawing against real faith is not endemic to the Amish alone, among all the peculiar people God has called out.

    Comment by LeRoy — May 4, 2015 @ 10:45 pm

  8. I sorta have to agree about the eventual demise of the Amish culture as we know it.As some one who was raised Old Order,and having a large extended family still living the life,I didn’t think I would ever come to that conclusion.History is against them,I believe the last Amish were out of Europe by the 1930’s.And being privy thru family about some of the struggles and bickering going on in some of the church districts over things that just don’t matter in the big picture,its funny if it wasn’t so sad the way people get wrapped up in trivia.One of my younger brothers was ordained a minister well over 20 years ago.To make a long story short,he has been defrocked and put in the ban,after going to war with the bishop and of course he lost.The way I look at it ,it was about ego and resentment,I’m right and your wrong,and being a good German,there is no middle ground.And so it went.Its very easy to connect with God with a little willingness, the irony of it is,maybe the plain and simple people have made it too complicated .To each his own,live and let live I say.Peace to all and may you be blessed.

    Comment by lenny — May 7, 2015 @ 2:41 pm

  9. I agree with you that the Amish youth of today have a greater challenge in staying Amish as opposed to the youth of yesteryear. Technology is a lure into an unknown world, particularly for those who have experienced very little of it. Everything is there at your fingertips including those things that can hurt you, and those things that can dull your mind, not to mention the big waste of time excessive viewing can be. But, alas, you can find some good recipes, old friends from the past, and advice on how to get orange pop out of your camel colored rug, all from an iPhone. None of which are that important when it comes to life and living. But try telling that to a teen who has yet to experience life. I think Amish parents are going to have to get creative if they want to meet the challenges their kids are facing, to keep them in the fold.

    Personally, I think it’s all overrated-this technology business. There have been many times when I needed information, went to the internet, and found absolutely nothing. After huffing and puffing over it I made my way to the library and checked out a book. Easy. And what about relationships with real flesh and blood people? What about hearing a person’s voice and reading their face as they speak? To me, that’s what life is all about. Not what celebrity decided he was sexless or who had the latest boob job or how parents have no right to seek counseling for their confused child who thinks he’s gay.

    I don’t believe in atheism. The Bible says that God put into the heart of every person His existence. I do believe people can shut that voice up, though. And, oh!, do they ever. I find people, who claim to be atheist, are holding anger, resentment, pain for some wrong done to them by people who call God their Father. Why they choose to take it out on God instead of confront their abusers is beyond me. God is not a person- fallible, selfish, unloving. I’m glad God doesn’t judge me like a faux atheist does.

    Interesting how you mentioned feeling the loss of your mother all over again. I was in the store the other day and noticed the Mother’s Day cards. For a brief moment I had the thought of how someday I won’t have my Mom with me. Though she lives hundreds of miles away I know I can pick up the phone and call her any time I want to. And she’ll be there. I guess that’s why it’s so important to tell people, when they are here with us, how loved and treasured they really are.

    Be well, my friend. May our dear Lord fill your heart and mind.

    Comment by Francine — May 7, 2015 @ 9:41 pm

  10. A thoughtful blog and beautiful comments about your mom. It is my belief that many of us children cause our parents grief when we seek to find our own path, which may not be the path they have envisioned for us. Perhaps you could have done it differently, perhaps not. But you did what you felt in your heart that you had to do and you did it the only way you knew how at the time. Know that if there is anything that has to be forgiven, God and your mom have already forgiven you and now it is time for you to forgive yourself. Be at peace, Ira.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — May 11, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

  11. OK, let’s try this again. Ira, I think you’re right. These devices are a serious challenge not only for the Amish but also for everyone else. A baby was baptized at our church a few weeks ago. (Yes, yes, I know. The baby doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on. :-) ) ANYHOW, here I am, up in the choir, and I could see that several family members were reading while the service was going on, and it wasn’t from the prayer book. Made me wanna do down there and knock heads together, but I’m not one to cause a scene. Downright rude and irreverent. The baby wasn’t the only one who was clueless. :-)

    Comment by Forsythia — May 13, 2015 @ 11:09 am

  12. Last year for Father’s Day my husband’s daughter invited us for dinner. Nearly the entire time we were there she, her husband and the grandchildren were on their phones texting or on Facebook. It took all of my will not to get up and leave. What a sad state we have let things become when people think this is acceptable behavior. In a sense it is true what the Amish think about taking care of the small problems so they do not become bigger problems. Now I realize that can be taken to extreme. I was raised in a Roman Catholic church and some the their rules were extreme when you look back at the “reason” for the rule. But here we are, first we thought telephones were acceptable to keep in touch (instead of physically visiting a person), then it became acceptable to text because we didn’t want to take the time to talk to someone. Now, people don’t even want to text they want to stay in touch by Facebook, and for some that includes invitations to parties, even weddings, and saying Thank You when someone has taken the time to give you a gift.

    As Francine states in her comments, where is the real life interaction with people? This shift in communication pattern would cause a huge negative impact on the Amish culture.

    Your comments on the loss of your mother, losing your mom is the most difficult life experience you can go through. For years after my mom passed, one year I could breeze through the year and be just fine, other years every time I turned around I was thinking about her and missing her. It does get better in time, but not right away.

    Comment by Jewels — May 13, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

  13. How is it your words bring a tear to the driest eye, draw a soft word from the angriest man, touch a heart among the most heartless? How Is it your memories bring recollection to those who’ve forgotten, your loneliness seeps into the minds of so many, and your heartbreak is felt by us all?

    Comment by G Racina — May 14, 2015 @ 2:06 am

  14. Ira, if your mother was in Christ then she is in paradise; she has none of the grief that you have. And if she loved you (which she obviously did) then her only wish is for you and your siblings- and father- to be happy, not grieving. What i’m saying is, the wounds you caused her many years ago she doesn’t feel anymore because where she is at there is only peace and joy. In Heaven all questions are answered, and all confusion and misunderstandings are gone. So she surely understands now, those things you long for her to understand. Let your soul be at rest. : )

    Also, very interesting, thought-provoking writing there about the effects of the latest technologies on the Amish. Whoa. Blows my mind. Had never thought of the impact of those things on Amish communities before. Great writing. God bless you.

    Comment by Cy — June 6, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

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