December 16, 2011

Stepping Through…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:51 pm


To live is to be slowly born.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I’ve never considered myself a public speaker, in any sense. Never. I’m not a preacher. Or a teacher, either. Don’t have the patience, to painstakingly work my way through an outline, or whatever it is those guys use. And I don’t particularly enjoy the sound of my own voice. Mostly, though, I’m pretty much petrified by the thought of speaking in front of a whole room full of people. And the thought of stuttering and freezing up in front of a crowd. That’s the stuff of nightmares.

Seems like when it comes to doing new things, especially the unfamiliar, intimidating stuff, I always have to be dragged kicking and screaming through that next doorway.

In 2007, my world imploded in shambles around me. From the ashes of the fiery wreckage, I began to write. Something I should have been doing for decades. I always knew it in my heart, that I should be writing. But I never did, because it was just too hard.

While negotiating my contract with Tyndale two years ago, I fussed and fumed and grumbled savagely but silently to myself when Carol Traver insisted on a continuous, connected thread throughout the book. That was something I had never done before. Ever. But she was adamant. No “sketches.” She wanted a real memoir. I was terrified, but smiled and promised her I would write it. I wasn’t quite sure how, but figured I’d worry about that later. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, and all that. The continuous, connected story turned out pretty well, I think.

After the book was released, the Tyndale marketing team lined up a slew of radio interviews. And it was quite daunting, at least the first one. A fifteen-minute live slot. The producer called. Put me on hold. The music cued. Then the host came on live. Today we have Ira Wagler as a guest. Author of “Growing Up Amish.” Welcome, Ira. At that instant, it was sink or swim.

Somehow, I stayed calm. At least, my voice did. And somehow, after we got into the subject matter of the Amish and the book, I relaxed. Let it flow. A few minutes in, I was good. I knew this stuff. Instinctively. With no forethought or planning. I knew it. After that first interview, I never again freaked in even the slightest sense as the next one loomed.

The connecting thread spiraling through my little anecdotes: I never did any of those things until I was pretty much forced to. Except for the writing, maybe. No one forced that on me. It was just a natural reaction to severe emotional trauma. But still, it took that trauma to get it triggered. And in every case, once I took that first step through the door that somehow had swung open, it all worked out. Every time.

And I didn’t really think much of it, one way or another, when a nice lady called me a few months ago. Would I consider attending her book club meeting sometime? To discuss my book? Of course. I’d be honored. She was from Garden Spot Village, a premier retirement center located right in New Holland. They had a small book club there, about fifteen people. And someone had recommended my book. They would read it, then we would discuss it when I came. We settled on a safely distant date. December 7th.

They seemed quite excited that I would attend, the people in the little book club. I’ll say that much. They even did a press release, a tiny notice that appeared in the Sunday News about a month ago. Invited the public to attend. Ira Wagler, local author. Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 7th, at 2 PM. As the date approached, I got a few “reminder” calls from the excited people. I was planning on being there, right? Oh, yes. Yes, I was, I always assured them.

I didn’t fret about it, hardly at all. Or think much about what I’d say. I knew my stuff. And soon enough, the day rolled around. Around 11:30, I left work and headed on over to New Holland. My hosts met me in the main foyer. They would take me to lunch first, then we’d set up in the room where they met. They had reserved a much larger room, they informed me. Plastered posters all around Garden Spot Village. They were looking for a good crowd.

I’d never before toured Garden Spot Village. Never been inside, except the main foyer. That’s where the locals vote. Where I wrote in Ron Paul’s name, in the last presidential election. And will again, in the next one. Garden Spot is famous in the region as a very desirable retirement facility. It’s like a little city in there. And pleasant enough, surprisingly. Huge apartment complexes connected by a center hub. A cafeteria. A full service restaurant. I mean, one could live in there and never have to leave for anything. Which is kind of the idea, I guess. But you can leave on excursions into the outside world anytime you want to.

We sat at a reserved table in the restaurant and ate a fine meal. And it was fantastic. We chatted about this and that. I quickly gathered that the place was very much like any small town. Everyone knows what’s going on, who’s doing what, and who said what. I wouldn’t call it gossip, just chatter. Mostly newsy stuff, sprinkled with opinions.

At 1:30, we headed to the meeting room on the third floor. I had brought a full case of books, which we trundled along on a little cart. You always take your own books to a signing. Just in case anyone wants to buy a copy. We stepped out of the elevator and walked into the room. Good-sized, with over a hundred chairs, a small podium at the front. I was amazed to see the room already filling with people. Twenty or so when we arrived. And in the next 25 minutes, the place filled up. People from within Garden Spot, and people from without. Many clutched copies of my book. I sat at the table and signed and sold books for a while before we started. And then 2 o’clock rolled around. The nice lady walked to the podium and introduced me, to a great storm of clapping. And then I stood to address the crowded room. More than a hundred people. Assembled, to hear me speak.

And amazingly, I was fine. A brief five-minute intro. Who I am. Where I come from. And the book. How it came to be. How I consider it a miracle, the way it all came down. The fact that it exists at all. And then I said, from here on we’re going to talk about what you all want to talk about. Are there any questions? Half a dozen hands shot up.

I took all the questions, one by one. Spoke back. Naturally. Relaxed. And more questions poured in, thick and fast. All were valid, some more so than others. A few, whether by accident or design, tried to back me into a corner. Tried to get me to pour some concrete, to say negative things about the Amish. I stayed on message. On what I believe. About the Amish, and about Christians in general. Sure, there are fakes out there. People who are focused on works, on rules. Sure, there are Amish people like that. Of course there are.

But the Amish are not that different from any other people. A little different, maybe, because of their austere lifestyle. But they are human, just like anyone else. And sure, among the Amish, there are people totally depending on their works to save them. Such people exist in a whole lot of other denominations, too. A whole lot. But just because you are Amish does not mean that you are lost. I fought that theme, again and again. No. I will not condemn the culture. No. I won’t. In fact, I highly respect the Amish people. I could never live like that, but I will always defend their right to believe as they see fit. Religious freedom is key to any free society. Whether or not the beliefs of any specific group make any sense to me, or to the mainstream. Details don’t matter, not when weighed on that scale. Freedom does.

The minutes rolled by. Many questions focused on the details of the book. Sam Johnson. Did he really cut you off like that? Yes. He did. But he also heeded the call, way back, when my soul was at stake. Did what he was asked to do. What happened between us after that doesn’t matter all that much. God uses His flawed children to call His lost children home.

There were a lot of questions about Bloomfield. And Sarah. Where is she now? That was of great interest to all. I answered carefully. Her identity was totally changed in the book. Some remnants of the Amish world might know who she is. But the English world will never know, not from me. Had there been any way to omit her completely from the story, I would have. But there wasn’t. Not without gutting a good portion of the heart of the narrative. Whatever the repercussions, my story is my story. And, as the Tyndale people told me, I have the right to tell it. As we all have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to speak of where we’ve been, and where we’ve come from.

It went fast, and all too soon 3 o’clock rolled around. Time to stop. One last question. Then they all clapped. And I returned to the table and signed and sold books. And chatted briefly with each person in line. Thanked each one for coming. Pretty much all of them seemed thrilled. Then it was over.

I had stepped through one more doorway. And it felt great.

I’m ready now, for the first time ever, to offer to speak before groups of people. Groups, say, within a two-hour radius of Lancaster. And beyond, really, if there’s a big enough crowd. And if my travel expenses are paid. I never could quite imagine that this day would come, but it has. So if any of you, my readers, would like to arrange a book talk, contact me. In the next few weeks, I’ll post a specific page up there on the top of my blog. Probably gut and remodel “The Ellen Years” page. It’s about time for that, I’m thinking. In the meantime, if you’re interested in setting something up, just shoot me an email from my “Contact Me” page.

The journey of the book has been so much more than I could ever have imagined. At least to this point. And that journey, I think, is far from over. There will always be another doorway ahead. Somehow, I’ll get pushed through each one as it looms.

And I’m OK with that. Looking forward to it, even.

I haven’t mentioned his site since a few years ago when he launched it. But lately I’ve been perusing Wagler Wisdom, my brother Jesse’s blog. Jesse has that Wagler drive to express himself, and he does it well. Mostly just his personal take on things. He’s certainly not shy with his opinions, which is cool. Gotta keep up the old family traditions.

He also does something I usually don’t. My stories are mostly from memory. From the things I saw, the things around me. From my childhood on. Jesse does actual research on stuff. Digs up old articles of interest and such. Posts links. And lately he came up with a rather startling document.

It was written by Joseph (Joe) Stoll, my cousin, Dad’s nephew. Joe co-founded Pathway Publishers with Dad, way back in the 60s. A little fact that I’m pretty sure was included in the first draft of my book, but somehow got edited out. In 1966, when I was five years old, Joe Stoll wrote a brief article on the then-current state of the Aylmer Amish community. Complete with history, and statistics.

Many, I know, will find such stuff dry as chalk on a blackboard. But it’s amazing to me that somehow, lurking around on Google, Jesse found that article that someone (NOT Joe Stoll) had posted. And linked it to his blog. The first-hand account of the founding of the Aylmer Amish community pretty much backs up my version. I wrote what I had always heard, the things I remembered. I never saw this article before. To me, it was just fascinating to see that the actual written details so closely resemble the stories I heard as a child.

And it’s almost Christmas time again. Seems like it snuck right up on me, like it does every year. I don’t get too riled up about any of it. Accumulate and consume, if that’s your thing. Spend next month’s rent on gifts. Or spout grave noble proclamations, decrying the crass commercialism of the times if that makes you feel better. So be joyful. Or be sour. Whatever works. I’m all for leaving people alone to make their own choices about such matters.

I buy gifts for very few, and expect gifts from no one. It’s the freest way I’ve found, to celebrate the season.

I’ll share the Christmas feast with my brother Stephen and his family. Celebrate and watch some football. And if I’m lucky, somewhere along the line, maybe I’ll snag some Roasht from my Amish friends.

Meanwhile, if you are casting about for gift ideas, may I offer my suggestion?

Merry Christmas to all.



  1. Good for you, Ira. You are taking the next step in bringing your story to a wider audience. This is an absolutely fabulous venue for you, and I wish you much success, which I’m sure you’ll attain.

    You are a natural speaker, although perhaps you don’t know it yet, but you’ll see. People will be drawn to you and your story. You have made a good decision and I, for one, am very proud of you!!! Continued Success!!!

    Comment by Deborah A Cataldi Barnhardt — December 16, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  2. Congrats on your successful speaking gig!

    Glad you enjoyed it and I fairly sure with how well your book has been doing that you’ll have more speaking gigs soon.

    And I like the way you celebrate Christmas, I tend to do that same… and I love that approach rather than buying, decorating too much.

    Merry Christmas to you!

    Comment by Janet Oberholtzer' — December 16, 2011 @ 7:18 pm

  3. Very good reading and well written as usual. It is a privilege for a simple housewife like me to be able to read the thoughts of someone so talented. I do think one point stands out for me in your writing, ‘Works do not save us, only a heartfelt belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins.”

    Comment by Carol Ellmore — December 16, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  4. With all due respect, I’m not sure exactly what your message is. If you speak to a Christian crowd the question will likely always come up about the salvation of Amish people. To a Christian that has a salvation testimony their goal is to win others of their loved ones to Jesus Christ, whether they are Amish or not. It is not condemning to want all our loved ones to come to Jesus. It is the road to freedom, whether they are Amish or not. Being an Amish person is not the road to salvation, Jesus Christ is. My Dad was Amish and I grew up Mennonite, and at the age of 14 I became a member of the Mennonite church, but was in no way saved by faith in Jesus Christ. So I ask you again, although you speak to large crowds, what is your message? Is it to use the fascination of others with everything Amish to enlighten them somehow. Enlighten them with what?

    Ira’s response: With all “due respect” back to you, Arlen, where did you ever hear me claim to have a message? Like I said, I’m not a preacher, or a teacher. In this blog, I describe my interaction with a large audience. Their questions. My answers. And that’s it. Why fuss about my “message” or lack thereof? Thanks for commenting, though.

    Comment by Arlen Yoder — December 17, 2011 @ 4:22 am

  5. Thanks for the kind mention. Cousin Joe Stoll is perhaps about the only one in the strict Aylmerite setting that We would consider a bit cosmopolitan in his views of the non-Amish world. He for sure knows the world is not flat, as he once is believed to have flown on an airliner to Europe. (We would love to have the details on that historic trip).

    As for your ‘Roasht’, isn’t that just a glorified Casserole, or something like that?

    Comment by Grandpa Jess From SC — December 17, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  6. I can’t get the captcha code to work. Ever.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — December 17, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  7. Well, that time it worked, so I guess I’ll try to make a comment. I’ve commented before, but the capcha code has gotten me every time. Just wanted to say that you’re a great writer. I could see the big crowd coming and wondered if you’d panic a bit. Nope. I got so engrossed in your story that I nearly burned the meatloaf.

    OK, let’s see if the Captcha Code treats me right.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — December 17, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  8. As a long time professor of Communication you are testimony to what I (and all speech profs) tried to convince my students.

    Most everyone fears public speaking — until they do it several times. I have an in-box filled with notes from former students who never liked my classes who now speak often and well. It’s a learned behavior. Or as you say, another door to go through. Sorry that in all your education you never were required to go through the door in a safe environment.

    Why remove references to and pictures of Ellen? She was as much a part of your past, actually more than, Sarah.

    Have a glorious holiday however you choose to spend it.

    Leanne O. Wolff, Ph.D.
    Professor emerita Heidelberg University

    Comment by Leanne O. Wolff — December 17, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

  9. Hello Ira,

    Congratulations on your speaking engagement. From this post, it sounds as though this was your first, but I did two with you some months ago. I’m a little surprised they didn’t get any mention.

    Christmas Blessings to you,
    Saloma Furlong

    Ira’s response: Yeah, sorry. Did not mean to snub. I should have fit that in somewhere. The difference was that this was my first talk before such a large crowd where I was all alone. That was far more frightening than the joint presentation we did. You are experienced in such things, and I could lean on that.

    Merry Christmas.

    Comment by Saloma — December 18, 2011 @ 1:38 am

  10. I bet you were so comfortable with that group – I love old people (especially the closer I get – ha ha). I also think even if you did intend to have a “message”, each would come away with their own version of what that message was anyway. Some would see it as one thing, others as another. The message I’m getting is that God’s had a plan for you for quite some time and we’re all on His clock. Enjoy this “chapter” ~

    Comment by Bethrusso — December 18, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  11. Hello Ira,
    Just now finished your book. Compelling story! I kept waiting for God to speak to you, and He did. Keep writing. Wish you would write another book bringing me up to date more.
    I was brought up Plymouth Brethren (exclusive brand). I went through a lot of what you had. My father ripped up my novel when he discovered it. I was a reader and I had to hide my reading, etc…
    Thanks so much for sharing your story! Appreciate this blog also.

    Comment by Joy Becker — December 18, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

  12. Hi Ira,
    I am one of those people that saw the invitation in the paper to hear you speak at Garden Spot Village and I did attend and have you autograph my book. You did a great job and your book has your message in it. I hope lots more people read it. I am waiting on the sequel…
    Thanks, Mrs. Janet Martin

    Comment by Janet Martin — December 18, 2011 @ 6:31 pm

  13. Ira, does the name Calvin Anderson ring any bells? I was the originating editor of the Pathway publication, The Ambassador of Peace in 1965, later to be renamed (Young Companion: Editor). My wife and I left the Amish in 1968 and have now been missionaries in Mexico for 27 years. Just ran across your name following the story of the Amish girl shot in Holmes Co., OH.

    How well I remember visiting Pathway, your dad and the rest in 65-67. I can’t remember at the moment the family that lived next to the printshop, was it Jake Eicher? But I’ll never forget the big platters of eggs over lightly and sliced tomatoes that they served for breakfast. We still have a garden and love sliced garden tomatoes with our eggs for breakfast. This brings back many memories.

    Ira’s response: I strongly remember the name, and vaguely remember the face. You had a long, red beard, I think. You were always associated with the words, “Ambassador of Peace.” Which you have been, ever since the world I knew as a child. Thanks for connecting.

    Comment by Calvin Anderson — December 20, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  14. Dear Ira,

    I just finished your book, on the shortest day of the year. I truly enjoyed it; you must hear that all the time, but I will tell you my story anyway.

    My Childhood Development class just ended last week, and in the final essay I wrote this about one subject we covered: Role Confusion.

    The most troubling part of adolescents is the rejection of parental and social values. So it was interesting to me to read Erikson’s theory that the questioning and rejection is a necessary stage of growing up. To become the unique person they know they are teens must figure out who they are inside of their society. Erikson decided that the major social issues of identity are religion, gender, politics and job, and that a teen will become their own person by accepting (or rejecting) the roles of their parents without questioning, or putting off the decision by doing nothing (or trying various things as in college or military).

    I had always thought that genetics (as in epigenetic theory) or scaffolding (as in Vygotsky’s theory) were the major reasons for identity achievement in emerging adulthood. The book did not address those issues, focusing instead on Erikson’s theory. Nor did the book address why some teens end up in role confusion, and how it usually ends up for them as adults. Erikson’s theory (and therefore the book’s focus) puts the emphasis of identity on a personal decision, even if the person decides not to decide, not on other influences.

    Looking at me, and everyone around me, I can see that identity is based on genetics and training by the society I was born into. The decision of who I am is not made in a vacuum, and the identity I accepted affects other people’s identity, and the process goes on. Erikson’s theory of identity helps me see that the rejection of my identity choices is a normal part of growing up, and that the “whatever” attitude is a symptom of role confusion. That understanding is comforting, but it doesn’t give much help in guiding a parent during this difficult time.

    When I picked up your book at the Library, I did not know what it was about. Now it feels like God said,”you want to know what role confusion looks like, and how it is worked through?” Your story told it perfectly. Thank you for putting your story out there, and thank you, Father, for showing me the inside turmoil of role confusion.

    Comment by Miriam Campos — December 22, 2011 @ 7:22 am

  15. I’ve read a some of your blog and history of your family. I was wondering what your connection with Bob Jones University was? How did you decide to attend and what influence did the training have on your life?



    Ira’s response: I have not yet written about my BJU experience. One day I will. Overall, very positive. I’m not where they are, expecting the rapture to come down any second. I can’t live like that. I fully expect to die one day. As far as the quality of the education there, I would stack it against any Ivy League school in this country. Extremely tough, extremely high standards.

    Comment by Shawn — December 23, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  16. Hello, I received your book for Christmas. I started reading on Monday and finished today (Thursday). I completely enjoyed your story. Very thought provoking.
    Thanks for putting your story in writing.

    Comment by Kari — December 29, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

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