December 2, 2016

A Hard Place To Leave…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home,
why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such
blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if…it was not the only
home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that
the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.

—Thomas Wolfe

He walked into the door at work one day a few weeks back. And I didn’t think anything of it as I got up to meet him at the counter. A young Amish man. Married, with a nicely trimmed little beard. His young daughter walked beside him, hovering close to her father, looking around with large and wondering eyes. I greeted him. And he smiled and greeted me back. Then he got to telling me what he had come for.

He needed a few parts to finish up a sliding door at his father’s commercial manufacturing shop. He told me the name of the place. I knew his father. A nice guy, but very conservative. I’d always taken the father as a South Ender. Not sure why. I had no reason to, except for the way he looked, maybe. His full, long beard, and some remnants of hard, mirthless laughter. I can usually tell a South-Ender from those two components alone.

The thing is, I can look at an Amish man and tell you a whole lot about him, just by looking. I mean, I’ve always prided myself in that ability. I can tell you if the man is real plain, or somewhat progressive. Whether he’s modern (a relative term, when discussing the Amish, I know), middle of the road, or hard core plain. So it didn’t compute, in my head, when I connected the slicked up young man before me with who I knew his father was. Oh, well. It didn’t matter. I leaned over the counter and just got to talking with the guy.

And we figured it out, there, in the next few minutes, what he needed to finish up his project at his father’s shop. I wrote up the invoice, and smiled over the counter at his little daughter. And I asked her, all conversationally, in PA Dutch. Vee bisht Du hite? (How are you today?). She smiled shyly, astounded at my words, then shrank up a little closer to her father. To his credit, the man didn’t flinch, or anything. And just about then, his eyes landed on the little poster I have taped to my computer screen. The poster about my book. He looked sharply at the wording, and the picture, a much younger looking version of me without a beard. And then he looked back at me.

And he asked me. “Did you write this book?” It wasn’t an accusing tone, or anything. Just conversational. Yes, I said. I wrote that book. And he asked a few more questions. I told him. I have copies of the book right here, by my desk. I’ll sell you one, signed, for fifteen bucks. He hesitated a bit. And I moved right on in to close the sale. I really think you should buy one, I said. I’ll sign it. I think you’ll find it very interesting. There’s no money back guarantee, or anything. But I really think you would enjoy the read.

He chuckled, then. “You know what?” he said. “You’re a good salesman. I’ll take a copy. You convinced me. But I don’t have any cash on me. Can I mail you a check?” Absolutely, I said. Just send it to this address, to my attention. I took a book from the box beside my desk, and asked his name and his wife’s name. He told me, and I signed it to them both. I handed the book to him, and he took it from me. His little daughter stood, silent, wide-eyed, watching.

And I told him what I tell everyone I sell my book to. I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know what you think of it, when you stop back again. “I will,” he said. He signed for the stuff he came for, and I sent him out to the warehouse to load up.

And I thought about the young man, off and on, that day. The Lancaster County Amish are different from the places I grew up in. At least a lot of them are. Just like this young married man. He was open. He didn’t look at me all sideways. And he actually bought my book, to take home and read. I wondered what he’d think of it. Ah, well. I’ll probably never find out, I thought. I had never seen the guy before, and there was little reason to think I’d ever see him again. I didn’t fret about it, just mulled things over, in my head. I wonder. I wonder. I sure wonder what he’ll think of my book.

Well, it turned out I didn’t have to wonder long. Exactly two days later, the young man walked in again. I greeted him. He needed just a few more parts for that sliding door. The job was almost finished. Not a problem, I said. And then I asked him. Did you get the book read? I’m not sure why I thought he might have. It had been only two days since he bought it. But I might as well ask, I figured. I’ll probably never see the guy again.

He grinned at my question. “I did get it read,” he said. “I sat up late the last two nights, reading. And I got it finished late last night.” Wow, I said. I’m pretty impressed. And then the thousand dollar question. What did you think of it?

“Well, you sure can write,” he said. “My wife is reading it right now.” He leaned on the counter, and we stood there and talked for a few minutes. “You had a lot of turmoil, in your life,” he said. Yes, I said. Yes. There was a lot of turmoil in my life.

And he asked. “Was your home life hard?” I never thought much about it, that it was, I told him. There was turmoil inside, but I never connected that with a hard life on the outside. I mean, my world was what it was. It was the only world I knew. And we had a lot of really good times, there at home. As a family. I enjoyed life with my brothers. I just never thought about it that way, that my home life was hard.

He nodded. “I hear that,” he said. “But it made me think. All that turmoil you had made me think. I want my home to be a peaceful and loving place, a safe place for my children. I want them to be comfortable, living there.”

It was an insightful thing to say. I looked at him. A young Amish man with small children, telling me he wanted his home to be a safe place for them, that he wanted them to be comfortable, living there. And he wasn’t thinking just today. He was thinking about what he had read. A tormented 17-year-old kid getting up in the middle of the night and walking away from the only home he had ever known. He was thinking about how he never, ever wanted his own children to feel that desperate and alone. He wanted his home to be a hard place to walk away from. A hard place to leave.

Not because of how things should be, from laws and legalism. But because of love.

And I thought about all that. I had never made a connection between my inner turmoil and an unhappy home life. Mostly, I think, I took the blame on myself that it could not work, that I could not be content, that I could not abide with my people. And I think, too, looking back on my father’s generation, and the generation following him. An observation like that would likely have been as foreign to them as anything they could have imagined. And I don’t blame them. It’s just who they were.

They saw hard things, my father and his peers. Hard times were all around them, when they were little children. They saw hunger, real hunger, and real poverty. They saw tramps with ragged knapsacks walking down dusty roads, unsure of where they were going or where they would sleep that night. And unsure of where their next meal was coming from.

In a setting like that, in such a world, I can’t imagine that there was a whole lot of reflecting going on about whether or not your children felt safe or welcome or comfortable at home. It was just assumed they would be grateful for the security of family. Not a lot of processing going on, there.

It all was what it was, I guess. And it all is what it is, now, too.

The Amish are not a monolithic people. That has been one of my persistent observations, scattered through my writings from the start. Rules and customs vary greatly from community to community. In the mid west, especially, each little settlement holds jealously to its own unique identity. This community won’t fellowship with that one, and that one won’t have much to do with the other one over there. And the other one over there looks down bemused and condescending on the first two. I mean, that’s just how it is in the Amish world I come from. Or at least a lot of how it was, way back when. And most people in all those little scattered settlements would scorn my book as a vile and unclean thing, that should not be touched or read. Because it speaks of things that should not be spoken.

And I’ve written about it, too, here and there. The Lancaster County Amish are a people separate and apart from all the rest of the Amish world. Blue bloods. Established. And very fascinating to me in so many ways. I guess that’s why I ultimately chose to live in one of the largest Amish communities in the world. Among my people, but not a part of them.

And I find it strangely comforting that among the Lancaster Amish, there are young men like the young man who read my book and came back and told me what he told me. How all that turmoil of my early years made him think. Made him evaluate what it is to have a safe and welcome home for his family. Made him think of his children, and how he wants his home to always be a safe refuge for his sons and daughters, whatever they are going through in their lives.

How many Amish fathers of any age think of such things, how many take such thoughts in their hearts and ponder them? I have no idea. I just know it’s more than it used to be.

And I find that a comforting and beautiful thing.

Well. I must say. I’ve rarely been as proud about calling something as I was the day after the election. The Friday before, on my last blog, I told my readers. I have consistently proclaimed from the start that Trump is gonna crush Hillary like a bug. There, publicly, when all the world told me I would be shown as a fool. I can’t claim to have any divine foresight, or anything. Sure, I read a few signs, but mostly I just stood by what I said and believed in. Well, he sure crushed her like a bug where it counts, anyway. Electorally.

It’s been delicious and fun, to see and hear all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth going on. The viperous rage and madness of the left erupted instantly, its intensity has only increased. The more those people scream and shout and throw tantrum after tantrum, the more irrational and boorish they act, the higher Trump’s support soars among the common people. Of which I consider myself one.

It was beautiful thing to see, the race. It was a scary thing, too. Trump stood against all the world. One man, alone. He connected with the downtrodden masses, as no one has before, ever. And he pulled it off. Such a thing has never been done before in the history of this country, and maybe in the history of the world. Here is the most brilliant and incisive analysis I saw of what it was.

“They laughed at him when he announced, they sneered at him even as he was winning the primaries, and they unleashed more venom than an army of rattlesnakes when he won the Republican nomination, even as they claimed he was headed for a Goldwater-like defeat. The American ruling class lives in a world entirely separate from that of their subjects: even as the peasants with pitchforks gathered in the shadow of the castle, they never saw the Trumpian revolution coming.”
—Justin Raimondo,

I expect no miracles from Trump, although I believe his enemies will keep right on underestimating him. Which will be a good thing. I figure he’ll get some good things done. But the fact that he won, that he beat the establishment and cast out the vile harpy, that fact alone is more than good enough for me. Not that I won’t judge him. I will judge him severely, but in only one area. I will judge him by how many wars he starts or doesn’t start. How many bloody conflicts he avoids or engages. He’s less a warmonger than the harpy would have been, that much simply cannot be denied. The Neocons were chomping at the bit to get a nuclear war started with Russia. Hillary was all willing and eager to lead that. Now, that possibility has at least diminished.

Still, innocent blood is innocent blood. I will judge every drop of such blood that flows because of the policies of president Trump, it doesn’t matter where, all around the world.

And one more thing in closing. Totally random, but important, I think, because it comes to mind as I write. Some areas of Mennonite culture and faith are hard, hard places. Not all. But some are. I’ve communicated with my friend, Trudy Harder Metzger, who emerged from the Russian Mennonites. Her stories have always shaken me. She came from a hard core place of superstition and darkness. As did a whole lot of other people. Compared to their journeys, I’ve said before, my own emergence from the Amish was a mere stroll through the park on a sunny day, with maybe a picnic lunch thrown in. And I hadn’t really thought about any of all that lately until this past week.

On Tuesday, over my lunch break, I was scrolling down through Facebook when I saw the link and title. How Pacifism Can Lead to Violence and Conflict. By Miriam Toews (pronounced “Taves”).

It was about the Mennonites. Intrigued, I brought up the article and read it. I was instantly drawn into the rare quality of her voice, and the beauty of it. And drawn into some of the most powerful and moving writing I have read in a long, long time.

She came from a dark and hard place, like my friend Trudy came from. I went and looked up her credentials later. But that moment, as I devoured the words she wrote, I realized. This woman came from a way harder place than I did. She feels no need to moralize. She just tells the story of her broken people. A bleak and brutal world, in all its heartbreak and misery and bondage and depression. You figure out the lessons yourself. That day, that moment, Miriam Toews gained one more lifelong fan. I will go and buy her books and read them. It doesn’t matter if she swears, or uses bad words in her novels. She’s real.

She has quite the literary record, it turns out. She emerged from the Mennonites in Manitoba, Canada. She ran away from that place when she was eighteen, and never looked back. And she took the educational track. Went to college and honed her writing skills. And then cranked out her first novel (Nah, look it up yourself). She has won many literary awards and has been lauded by “literary” giants like the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Herald. Usually that makes me suspicious, when I see an author splattered with accolades from people like that. This time, it’s real, and it’s deserved. I finally have some grudging respect for literary awards.

Read her stuff. Compared to her voice, mine is raw and untrained, like a little Amish boy piping up out of turn, an Amish boy who graduated from eighth grade in an Amish schoolhouse in backwater country.

None of all that matters much, I guess. You speak because you have to. I’ll keep on writing, however rough my voice. I hope Miriam Toews keeps on writing, too.



  1. A friend already let me know I better read your blog! And I’m signed up for it, though of late my studies have kept my nose securely fastened to other books and commitments. But I realize how pleasant it is to read what I want to read, just because I want to, and have some catching up to do for the past 11 weeks.

    That Amish dad who wants to give his child a safe home… what a beautiful thing to see such a commitment spoken after reading how hard things were for you! I find moments like that make a hard story more worthwhile than before, and applaud you for telling it honestly.

    And now I have Miriam Toew’s blog up to read…. as if I have time for it, but I’m curious enough about the title, and it falls in line with current studies, so I will satisfy my curiosity about her. :) As always, I enjoyed your blog and your writing. (And still waiting for that book you are working on! So glad you are pressing forward with it.)

    Comment by Trudy Metzger — December 2, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

  2. Enjoyed your blog as usual. I look forward to reading it. Keep writing the blog, it is always interesting.

    Comment by Linda Morris — December 2, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

  3. In our parents and grandparents age there was no such thoughts as providing a safe home for their children, at least not in my opinion. It was survival, trying to stay alive. In many of the homes one or both parents died and the children were scattered into other homes. My great grandmother was an orphan at the age of 12 and she was placed in various homes before she could settle in with another family. She married young and died soon after a childbirth. She left a whole slew of girls and a few sons in the sole care of her husband… until he remarried to a widow who had a few rough sons, and survival started all over again for his daughters.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — December 2, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

  4. I understand the reason you live where you do. It’s a sense of belonging that probably can’t be had elsewhere. I, myself, wouldn’t even gamble mentioning your name here. It’s sad that other communities are missing the experience of your book.

    Comment by lisa — December 2, 2016 @ 11:56 pm

  5. How TRUE: God Bless my wife and I with a wonderful daughter. Being a parent was a joyful experience and somewhat easy since I did what this Amish man said: “Not because of how things should be, from laws and legalism. But because of love.”

    It is a JOY in the morning seeing a 23 year old daughter leave for work, and always saying I Love you dad.

    Comment by Warren — December 3, 2016 @ 10:58 am

  6. “Each little settlement holds jealously to its own unique identity. This community won’t fellowship with that one, and that one won’t have much to do with the other one over there. And the other one over there looks down bemused and condescending on the first two. I mean, that’s just how it is in the Amish world I come from. Or at least a lot of how it was, way back when. And most people in all those little scattered settlements would scorn my book as a vile and unclean thing, that should not be touched or read. Because it speaks of things that should not be spoken.”

    Take the word Amish out of the above paragraph, jack up the condescending 85%, change the word bemused to “ignorantly”, dial up the jealousy 4 or 5 notches from whatever setting it’s currently on, replace the words “my book” with “anything they don’t understand” and you have every neighborhood in America from Malibu to the trailer park down by the river.

    As to your question, “how many fathers think of such a thing”? I believe by far and away more Amish fathers do than did when I was young. And we need more Dads thinking that way the world over.

    Comment by VB — December 4, 2016 @ 9:50 am

  7. What a great father to think of his children having a home that was a safe space. This kind of love is much needed in the world of today. I grew up in an age where “children should be seen and not heard.” Parents and grandparents didn’t know any better. I always felt nobody really cared about what I wanted, it was just what they wanted for me. I was given roots down to China, and no wings. I had to take my wings and I did. And that is what you did, Ira. Great blog post, as usual.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — December 4, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

  8. What really caught my attention in this post was the mention of Miriam Toews.Along with her writings she was an actress in an art house film…Silent Light..(Stelle Licht).It is based on a story of emotional and moral conflict in an Old Mennonite colony in Mexico.The actors are all Mennonite and the dialog is in ” Platdeustch” with English subtitles.The director used sounds and some stunning photography in place of words, which are sparingly used.One scene with the loud ticking of a clock and chairs being scraped back on a hard wood floor from a dining table in silence after the finishing of a meal and the final prayer blew me away.I was a little boy again,at the close of a meal at my Amish bishop grandpa’s house.The essences and attitudes of the Germanic Mennonite and Amish culture are totally brought out.Warts and all.Some of it is not pretty.And I liked it.Tell it for what it is.I got the DVD from Amazon and will watch it again.And several more times after that..Thanks,IRA,and peace to all..

    Comment by lenny — December 18, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

  9. OK now it is Friday and nothing from you since the 2nd, I pray you are well and a very Happy New Year to you and yours , Blessings G.

    Comment by Georgia — December 30, 2016 @ 9:51 am

  10. Ira, I did find it interesting on your observation of the Lancaster folks having different views than where you grew up. I’ve read your blogs off and on from the very first and have wondered at the lack of that realization already. So now you are observing the Lancaster views . There are likely hundreds of families you haven’t visited yet. I do appreciate the fact you do not put everybody in one basket. When I was growing up I knew your older brothers and community and somewhat realized the different culture.

    Comment by OOA — January 12, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

  11. He nodded. “I hear that,” he said. “But it made me think. All that turmoil you had made me think. I want my home to be a peaceful and loving place, a safe place for my children. I want them to be comfortable, living there.” Amen!!

    When our children were growing up, they experienced too much impatience from their father and too much mocking from their peers. I wanted the best for them but financially, life was hard and I failed.

    Today, our family is united in a way it has never been, thanks to the issues Steve Stutzman refers to in his letter to “Wounded by the Church.” One daughter experienced abuse at the hands of a brother in the church while living in his home as a mother’s helper. She suffered through severe depression as a result but with the help of counselling has found her way through to the point where she is now counselling/mentoring other young women from plain backgrounds. Another daughter has also experienced issues in life that have led her to seek some counselling, recently attending a Steve Stutzman session in Lebanon, Pa. (This counselling is really frowned upon in our church group and they have to almost do their work in the dark). She called last night to refer me to Trudy Harder Metzger’s blog where she quoted Steve Stutzman’s “Wounded by the Church”. I had to think of the Amish bishop you referred to earlier – if only we had more like him. We are currently struggling with the issues Steve mentioned in his letter – that of church leaders who seem to understand power and authority while forgetting about that most essential aspect – love!

    Like the home, the church needs to be a safe place, a warm and friendly place where our children and grandchildren can learn to know Jesus without all the politics. Since our leaders “are asked to do the impossible” (a quote from Steve Stutzman) the church needs caring people to help the leaders make the church a safe place and a place where the wounded can receive help rather than just hurting them more.

    Comment by OSIAH HORST — January 23, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

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