April 20, 2012

Circling Back…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:03 pm


The years are walking in his brain, his father’s voice
is sounding in his ears…His living dust is stored with
memory…He has never been here, yet he is at home.

—Thomas Wolfe

I live in Lancaster County. Smack dab in the heart of one of the largest Amish communities in the world. Not to mention the oldest. And coming from where I’ve been, I sometimes feel like the odd man out there, drifting in a sea of cultural blue bloods.

Since my readership has increased pretty drastically in the last few months, it might be good to tell of how that happened. Some of you out there are probably wondering. Lancaster County. What’s up with that? Did the guy ever really leave the Amish, as he claims? Why can’t he seem to shake them for good?

Well, yes, I left. For good, back there at the end of the book. I never returned to Bloomfield or to Goshen, except to visit. But never to try again. That was my final departure. And at that time, there was little about the culture that attracted me. I wanted to shake it all off, the last vestiges of those chains. I was free at last. After all those years of turmoil. Free. And it felt great.

And yeah, there was some resentment bubbling inside me. A little bit of anger. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, but it was there inside my heart. And I spoke it now and then. These people were stuck in their backward ways. They were welcome to stay there. The memories were still so raw inside, and so fresh. I was done. Gone. For good. I would never look back, except in gratitude that I had finally escaped. That’s how I felt.

I settled in Daviess, hung with the Mennonites and Beachy Amish, and they welcomed me. Then in the summer of 1989, I came to Lancaster County. Not out of curiosity, but for strictly economic reasons. That fall, I was set to enter college at Vincennes. I had a connection in Lancaster. And he told me. Come on in. Wages are way higher. You can make some real money here. More than you ever will in Daviess. Come on in. And the decision was easy. I had been a rolling stone for most of my adult life. So it seemed like a good idea, to roll on some more. Lancaster. I’d heard so much about the place. Remembered how odd they had seemed, the people from there, way back when they visited us in Aylmer.

And so, in May of that year, I loaded my ugly tan-gold T Bird and headed east. Arrived in Lancaster safely. It’s a beautiful area. Old, for this country. Lots of history. Tiny narrow ribbons of paved roads wind and twist through the countryside. Countless tidy little farms dotted about. Ancient stone houses and great red barns, owned by the same family for generations. Real roots, here. None of the vagabonding like my father had done, decades ago. These people were planted here. Born here. Lived here. Died here.

And the strange Amish buggies with rounded tops and straight sides practically clogged the roads, hitched to wild, high-stepping horses. You couldn’t have paid me to ride those buggies on those roads. Still couldn’t. I almost felt like a tourist, seeing this brand of Amish for the first time.

And that summer I worked long hard hours and saved my money. But I didn’t meet a whole lot of Amish people. I had no desire to, really. Sure, I said hi when passing in the regular stream of commerce. Mostly, I hung out with the Beachy Amish youth at Pequea church. They were friendly and accepting, welcomed me. Invited me to their social activities. It was a good summer, and a short one. In August, I left for Daviess and Vincennes, still convinced that the Lancaster Old Order Amish were one strange bunch.

The next summer I returned to Lancaster. And again, I made no attempt to meet any Amish people, or get to know them. Still wanted nothing to do with them. The summer passed, and I returned to Daviess and my second and final year at Vincennes.

The third summer, that’s when things started shaking. And changing. I boarded with Ben and Emma Stoltzfus and their family. On their farm just east of Honey Brook, over the line in Chester County. Upstairs, in the third floor attic of the farm house. A cozy little place that would be my Pennsylvania home base for about the next five years. Ben and Emma became as close to my surrogate parents as any couple ever has. I treasure the memories of their kindness. And their love.

And one summer evening, after I’d returned from a long day of working in the sun, Emma had a message for me. Some Amish guy had called that day. David (not his real name). Asked lots of questions. Was I staying there? Was I David Wagler’s son? Emma told him yes, and promised she would tell me. And she did. I was supposed to call him back. Here’s the number to his phone shack.

I looked at the slip of paper and shrugged. This was about the last thing I needed, some Amish guy tracking me down. I had just broken away a few short years back. I knew plenty of Amish people, even a few I still considered my friends. Why would I want to get to know any more? I pitched the number. Didn’t return David’s call. He’d go away if I ignored him, I figured. Another nosy Amish man with all kinds of invasive questions. No way, I wasn’t playing that game. He probably wanted to admonish me for leaving. Tell me to go back, to “straighten up and settle down” where I should be, back in Bloomfield. I didn’t want to hear it. Not this time. That song had been played too many times. No more, I would listen to it no more.

And a week or so later, another message. Emma smiled almost apologetically and told me as I walked in, exhausted, from a hard day’s work. David had called again. Insisted that he wanted to see me. Again, I shrugged. Who was this wacko Amish man? So persistent. Well, I could be persistent, too. And again, I pitched the phone shack number. Ignored the man.

And then, David unlimbered the big guns. He didn’t call Emma again. Oh, no. He waited, craftily, until evening the next time he called about a week later. I don’t remember who answered the phone. But it was for me. It’s David. The Amish guy.

I gave up right then. Any man that persistent at least deserved an answer directly from me. So I walked into the front room, off to the side, kind of a parlor. Took the phone. Hello. And a calm pleasant voice spoke. Precisely stating the words. Good evening. This is David. Is this Ira? Yes, it is. A few brief polite pleasantries. Then, hey, would you stop by some Saturday soon? We would love to meet you, my wife and I.

And there I stood, stuck. No. I don’t want to meet you. No. I don’t need to be admonished by any new Amish “friends.” But I couldn’t just say that. Too rude. So I hedged. Yeah, that might work. What did you have in mind? Of course, the following Saturday afternoon suited David just fine. And, of course, I had nothing else planned. So, reluctantly, I agreed. Where do you live? It’s simple, David claimed. We live just off the highway….and he gave me specific directions. OK, I promised. I’ll be there this Saturday afternoon. He looked forward to meeting me, he said. I mumbled in response. We hung up.

That Saturday afternoon, I headed out, shortly after one. In my old T Bird. Someday, I will write of how just ugly that car was. Not the shape, necessarily. But the color. Tan-gold. It was just gag-me awful. I haven’t owned that many vehicles in my lifetime, but I have owned two of the ugliest colors in the spectrum. The old avocado green Dodge. And that awful tan-gold T Bird. Other than the color, though, the T Bird was a decent car. It got me to where I was going, for a good many years. As a destitute student. So I guess I should honor it a little more.

I drove down the crowded two lane highway toward Lancaster. Turned right onto David’s road. A mile or two in. And then I turned into his drive. Nice place. Clean as a whistle, like most Amish places in Lancaster County. Not even a wayward leaf on the ground anywhere. Neat freaks, like all Lancaster Amish people. I parked. Got out and walked toward the house. Strangely, I wasn’t particularly nervous. This meeting was coming down, and it would be what it would be.

David met me at the door. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Then he welcomed me into his home. I walked in. Met his smiling wife, and their clan of quiet children. All of them milled about. I scanned the room, amazed. Stacks of books were strewn about everywhere. Not fluff books, either. Literature. Theology. Bestsellers. I was instantly impressed. And as I looked into their faces, I suddenly knew that they were genuinely happy that I was there, in their home. It wasn’t just their smiles. It was their eyes. There was no hint of judgment in them. None. Nothing but pure honest joyful welcome. I didn’t know such a thing even existed in the Amish world.

And that was my first taste of how it can be, and how it could have been so much earlier in my world. To be accepted as I was, who I was, by someone from my background, my culture. Truly accepted. And truly welcomed. There was not a shade of a cloud of any reservation. None. I don’t think I could quite grasp, quite wrap my head around what that meant to me in that moment.

I won’t claim that I was suddenly, magically relieved of my resentment toward the Amish in general, right then. I wasn’t. I won’t claim that I decided right then that Lancaster County would be my future home. I didn’t. I was a rolling stone. Heading off to Bob Jones University in South Carolina that fall. I had no idea where I’d end up. I didn’t think ahead that much. I was focused only on working summers to earn enough to survive another year of college without loading up on too much crushing debt. I’d settle where I’d settle, when the time came.

I will say that when I met David and his family, that was my first real taste of people from my culture who accepted me, even though I had chosen to walk away. And that was a profound and startling thing to me. A minor miracle. To realize that such people could exist. I thought I knew the Amish as a group, and all their mindsets. I didn’t. Because I had never been exposed to certain elements of the Lancaster County Amish before.

The blue bloods came through. That’s all I can say. They fully deserve the status they claim for themselves. They are the real thing. What the Amish could be and should be.

That said, they’re not all like David and his family, the Lancaster Amish. Not nearly all. Even here, most are more like the type of Amish I knew growing up. Especially down south. South-enders, we call them. They’re mostly grim and humorless. Hard core. I can usually tell, when I meet them. Who they are and what they are. By how they look. I can sense their spirit. And tell who they are, from certain shadows in their eyes.

That was right at twenty years ago, when David finagled me into coming to his home. After that first time, the place became a regular Saturday afternoon stop for me. I soon developed a deep, quiet friendship with his family. Off and on, I’ve been there, a character in their lives as the children grew into adults. Married now, some of them. With children of their own. There were a few stretches through the years where I lost contact with them for a while, but I always circled back. Back to a zone of comfort that welcomed me, offered shelter from the storms. Back to real true friends.

And in time, my mind relaxed as well. My journey looped back, back to my roots. And I settled in, where there was comfort and support. I will never be accepted as a true Lancastrian. No one not born here is. But I’m settled, in my head. This is my home. Today, some of my closest friends are Old Order Amish. Right here, around me, in Lancaster County.

It might make sense, or it might make no sense, to those who have broken away from restrictive religious backgrounds. That I hang so close to the culture that caused so much pain. It might be mostly an Amish thing, I don’t know. Years ago, my brother Joseph was traveling by bus somewhere through Texas. At the bus station in some big city, a guy walked up to him. Completely English. Spoke to him in broken Pennsylvania Dutch. He had left the culture decades before. Lost pretty much all contact with his roots. And sometimes he randomly drove over to the bus station just to see if some Amish people might be passing through. And that day, Joseph was. They visited for a while, and the guy left. Still then, years later, he could not deny his longing for some connection to his culture. Something in his heart moved him to do what he did. There is no way to really disconnect, however much one might want to.

I chose to circle back, to live among them, the Amish. I could have chosen not to, and that would have been perfectly OK as well. I certainly don’t live like them, their lifestyle. Couldn’t do that if I tried. And I have no desire to. When I go “home” to visit, I stay in a motel. Because after spending the day in what used to be my world, I’m always quite ready to return to modern conveniences.

I guess for me, the dividing line is this. If, back there in the culture you have fled, there are people who still accept you as you are, stop. Reconsider your thoughts. Not your path, your journey is your choice. Just open your heart to those whose hearts are open to yours, and you will likely see with new eyes where you’ve been, and where you’ve come from.

My people, and my culture, will always be a part of my identity. Always be a part of who I am, how I react, how I see things. And nothing will ever change that fact. I can deny it. Or accept it. Either way, it’s still true.

It’s important, I strongly believe, to face and make peace with the past. And all it ever was, good or bad. Whatever the flaws of those in that world, to accept them. Whatever the hurts, to forgive those who inflicted them. Whatever the wounds, to seek healing. Which can be no small thing, sometimes, I know well enough. It wasn’t a small thing for me, and my journey was a walk in the park compared to that of those who have endured and survived every imaginable form of abuse. But it can be done, and it must be done. For a whole lot of good reasons. But mostly, for the sake of your own heart.

Because a heart that refuses to be healed will never be truly free.



  1. Sounds like the prologue for your next book.

    Comment by Jerry Eicher — April 20, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

  2. No truer words have ever been spoken. And I agree with Jerry…appropriate prologue.

    Comment by jan ellis — April 20, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

  3. Good, good stuff.

    Comment by Rhonda — April 20, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

  4. Thank you for saying what I feel so deeply. Having read your book & reading your blog I cannot thank you enough for writing so honestly. I grew up in Nappanee so I have been there, done that. I truly understand.

    Comment by Marietta Couch — April 20, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

  5. Forgiveness is giving up hope that the past could be different. Your grace and strength are admirable.
    This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

    Comment by Amy — April 20, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  6. You have a great attitude, Ira, your words towards your people are laced with a respect that is appreciated. Powerful!

    Comment by Dorothy — April 20, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

  7. Well said, Ira.

    Comment by Ben Glick — April 20, 2012 @ 10:27 pm

  8. Enjoyed this post as well as “South-Enders.” We live in Laurel, Maryland, where an Amish market is open on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It’s always mobbed. Finding a parking space is nearly impossible. I’d like to go back soon for another “pretzel dog,” a scrumptious treat that probably instantly hardens your arteries, but you only live once. They’re from Lancaster, PA–you can tell from the heart-shaped caps the women wear.

    Comment by cynthia r chase — April 21, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  9. Wow! This really hit home for me. I think it was probably about 15 years after I left that I suddenly realized that I was getting a bit homesick and that I actually missed some of the things I grew up with. We frequently go back and visit my parents and we enjoy hanging out with our Amish friends but no matter how welcoming they are there is always a little piece missing that I don’t think I could ever get back even if I tried.

    Thanks for another great post.

    Comment by Ed — April 21, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  10. Great words, my good man!

    Comment by Rick Raley — April 21, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  11. HI Ira
    This is a great post. I was also Amish many years ago; I grew up in Nappanee, IN. I don’t agree with the Amish but I would take no amount of money for my experience growing up Amish. Thanks again.

    Comment by Homer E. Schmucker — April 21, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

  12. Your post brings to mind those fateful Eagles’ lyrics:

    Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
    Come down from your fences, open the gate
    It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you
    You better let somebody love you, before it’s too late.

    Comment by Tammy — April 21, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

  13. That last line is so very true…once again your writing doesn’t disappoint :)

    Comment by Erin — April 21, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

  14. Find the joy in what you let go…

    Comment by larry harper — April 21, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  15. It makes sense. Perfect sense. Stellar writing. Too bad blogs don’t have Top Ten lists.

    Comment by Ava — April 21, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  16. You sure hit on a lot of great points here. First, it’s pretty clear to me that God is in charge and knows what you need, whether you realize it or not. He made sure you and “David” connected – maybe for your sake as well as His plan for David. Sometimes it’s not just about you – it’s about what He needs for someone else (through you). I know, I should’ve been a priest. LOL

    I wish more people (in any community or religion) would realize they don’t need to judge – it’s already taken care of – and love, acceptance, and prayer can go a lot further than condemnation and judgment. I know they see it as their “responsibility” and that’s fine, but for me, connecting with people who actually listen and accept just softens my heart. I think that’s much easier to work with than a hardened one. Plus it gives me so much more energy and encouragement to be a blessing to others.

    I like how you threw his number away twice and ignored him, but couldn’t ignore his request to meet with you – “too rude”. CRACK ME UPPPP!! And I’ll have to show you my daughter’s old “gold” Honda picture (they called it honey mustard). That’s not the color car you want when you and your friends go TP’ing and try and make a getaway. She speaks from experience. :)

    Comment by BethR — April 22, 2012 @ 11:47 am

  17. Ira, this is such a beautiful post. You have come so far in your journey, and have found such peace and healing. Right now, I am struggling with a very intense hurt and anger toward someone who hurt my daughter (not physically), and betrayed my trust. I know I have to let go of the anger, and heal. I’ve been praying constantly for God to help me forgive this person, or it will keep festering inside. Keep the posts coming–I love reading them– they always have something insightful I can carry with me. Thank You!

    Comment by Bev Berger — April 22, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  18. I am reading your book and now have discovered your website, which I believe will be on my favorites list.

    Also I have read your blog concerning the pain you experienced due to the divorce. There is something about divorce that can never be overcome. My husband, (2nd) and I now married near 21 years and still I doubt we are truly considered legitimate, not like those couples married 40 years. It is the same in every culture and every religion I think. Somehow we all do get through life, despite the pain.

    You write beautifully. Your story is amazing. Your soul shines through in both book and blog with true sensitivity. You are a very brave man – it is no small or easy thing to leave one religion for another or one culture for another. It seems to me that somehow you have found a way to be part of your two worlds.

    Comment by Eleanor — April 23, 2012 @ 6:57 am

  19. Good Evening. I just finished reading your book, Ira. I am intrigued and troubled, so I came to your website to find out more. Even more amazed that you now live among my Amish neighbors. What book shall I read next?

    Comment by carol ann ward — April 24, 2012 @ 2:15 am

  20. Thank you for putting into words what hundreds of ex-Amish have gone through. It was somewhat of a balm to hear someone else paint a picture of the pain, the rejection, that often comes our way. And then the emotions that boil on the inside as you try to sort through it all and move on with life. Love your last sentence…so true. You are so good with words.

    Comment by Mary S — April 24, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

  21. Very powerful… touching… and true. Whether it’s Amish, Mennonite or any other culture. It’s just the way it is.

    I find I leave reading your thoughts with less words to express myself and more heart to live by. This healing and friendship you write about has been my experience as well, and for that I thank God. I would never be the same, not so free, if I had not made this peace with life gone by. Bless you Ira!

    Comment by Trudy Metzger — April 25, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

  22. “a heart that refuses to be healed will never be truly free.”

    These words are so true, for all types of pain. Thank you for another wonderfully crafted story of healing.

    Comment by Glynnette — April 26, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

  23. Thank you for expressing the need to forgive. The pain may be deep, but the need to forgive is deeper. I grew up Amish. My husband and I left the Amish six years ago. Now he is filing for divorce and the pain and disgrace from the culture that I grew up in is very intense. Often I’ve wondered, is there anyone out there who has gone through the same thing? Your blogs have been very encouraging. Thanks.

    Comment by Rachel — April 26, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

  24. Have had the painful experience of leaving myself. I have not however found friends in the culture who I can connect with without judgement. One of the things I miss the most is the sense of community. I don’t usually let myself think of it because it hurts pretty bad. I’ve only been ‘out’ for 3-1/2 years.

    Comment by Kia — April 26, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  25. Thank you again Ira, for another honest and inspiring blog. When you write, I feel I’m right there where you were, very vivid in my mind. I can’t wait for the next book !

    Comment by Dixie Nielson — April 27, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

  26. Ira, you are very talented. You write from your heart, and you have so much to tell. I loved your book– and yes, the cover does have a soft, velvety feel to it. I laughed my head off at the part in the book when you and your friends bought the used car, stole some gas, and took off with the car “rocketing” along. I could picture it so vividly. I’m sure it was scandalous behavior for Amish boys, but it doesn’t sound very uncommon for “English” teenage boys in the 70’s. I liked that you all handed the man some cash, he “slapped on a license plate”, and the car was yours. Things were much simpler back then– no car insurance, and all sorts of red tape. That truly was a classic scene from the book. I’ve read the book through twice– it’s just a wonderful account of your journey to freedom and faith.

    Comment by Bev Berger — May 1, 2012 @ 10:35 pm

  27. Ira,

    The last paragraph and last line was very moving for me.

    I was born and raised in Lancaster County (60-years). Lived for the past 30-years where I was born, (I’m the 4th generation at the homestead). If we get down to the to the shore this summer I may stop in at your workplace to meet you personally. Take care and keep up the GREAT writing.

    Comment by Warren — May 13, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

  28. Hey, that’s my home area you’re talking about. (I was not Amish, but never questioned their presence as anything other than how things were.) It is interesting to read about it from an outsider’s perspective.

    Especially since I’m an outsider now myself, not by intention, but an outfall of the faith path I chose. You sure can’t go home again!

    “It got me where I was going.” “So I guess I should honor it a little more.” You are such a poet.

    Comment by LeRoy — May 16, 2012 @ 9:49 am

  29. I can relate to this writing on several levels. I left the Catholic church, angry, not because of God, but because of the Catholics. Actually, I never knew God during my 12 years of Catholic education or church attendance. I only saw who I thought were God’s representatives. And with reps. like that who wanted God? Not I.

    I did end up giving my life to the Lord at age 25. But it had nothing to do with any religion. It was just me and God and my plea to see Him if He were real and gave a crap about me. Now, 21 years later, after much healing and soul searching with God as my guide, I can go into a Catholic church and be ok with it. Actually, I think it has more to do with my being ok with who I am than who the church is. Whatever the case, peace is a beautiful thing.

    The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous has a list of promises one receives after working the 12-steps. “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”, is one of them. A great book for anyone whether alcoholic or not.
    Love your blog, Friend.

    Comment by Francine — October 29, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

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