“Hello Mose. I have always been fascinated by the Amish way of life. They seem to lead such a simple, peaceful life. I am sick of my life, and I am ready to start over. I have always felt connected to the Amish, and I strongly feel like I am supposed to be Amish, and that most of my troubles would be over if I only joined the community. You're the only Amish person I know. Could you please help me become Amish?”
The above is an actual message I received from someone wishing to be Amish, and it is not unlike about a thousand others I’ve received. I can easily see why someone looking into the community from the outside, would get this impression. I suppose the best way for me to understand your viewpoint was by putting myself in your shoes. My dream is to live in Switzerland. When I was young, I read the book Heidi, written by Johanna Spyri. The book is about a girl who was adopted, lives with her gruff grandpa in the Swiss Alps, befriends a crippled girl, Clara, and eventually gets Clara to move up into the mountains with her and her Grandpa. Between the fresh mountain air, goat's milk, and with Clara now out from under the strict thumb of Fraulein Rottenmeier, a miracle happens. Clara becomes healthy, and for the first time in her life begins walking.
I have read Heidi many times, and now that I am a bit older, I have drawn a few more mature conclusions, the first being that the power of goat’s milk was probably exaggerated. But as a child, it all made sense. When I had a sister with health problems, and doctors who could never seem to diagnose the issue, to me, it was a no-brainer—take her to the Swiss Alps, far away from the Amish, far away from the quack doctors who kept recommending homemade concoctions, like dandelion stew, raw uncooked foods, and on and on. Anyhow, my point being, I needed to put myself into this scenario in order to understand why someone would view the Amish lifestyle, a lifestyle I spent half my life trying to flee, as the one they dream of joining.
Part of the reason why there is little information about the Amish, and also coincidentally, why right now there are so many television shows about the Amish, is because they are a very private people and, they live right among us, here in good old America. In my opinion, the mystique surrounding the Amish, what they do, how they live, and what they believe, is also the exact reason why so many people want to exploit them, uncover, or open these hidden mysteries, be it in books, films, or newspaper articles.
So, could you be Amish? Don’t decide yet. Allow me to explore my Amish life, and a few of the reasons why I spent most of my childhood trying to get out.
Around 1998. While Still Amish.
I was born and raised Old Order Amish in one of the strictest Amish communities in the United States. I remained there until I was almost 23 years old. As a whole, I don't pretend to understand everything about them, mostly because there are so many communities, and all have a different set of rules. I only know that I was seriously unhappy among them, and before finally leaving, lived in over a dozen different communities, trying in vain to find the one where I could fit. While the communities I lived in got progressively more modern, or liberal, I found that, like most churches in the outside world, each Amish community thought they were the chosen one, and often not so secretly, scorned all the other communities with a different set of rules. While Amish rules vary, in things like farm machinery, the styles of buggies, dress code, the type of engines allowed on farm equipment (diesel or gas), they all hold similar beliefs about Heaven and Hell. They all preach from the King James version of the bible, and all desperately wish to keep their children among the Amish community. Forever. Although some communities stress this issue less than others, if you dig deep enough, every one of them believes there is little hope of salvation for those that wander into the outside world, regardless of what life they live there.
I will post ten Pros and ten Cons about being Amish. Since that would be a very long blog, I will break it into two parts. The first, this blog, will be Amish For Life, PART I, which will focus on the Cons. Then, in two weeks, I will post Amish for Life, PART II focusing on the Pros. In the end, you can make your own decision on whether you could become ‘Amish for life’.
- Electricity: No electricity means no technology. Speaking for myself, now, if I go for a weekend without checking my phone for email, texts, missed calls, Facebook, Twitter, Sports, World News, I start feeling seriously detached—out of the loop. Call me a victim of the world. It doesn't matter how miserable you are with your life, or how much you are ready for a change, are you really prepared to give up every single means of communication with the outside world, every friend you've ever made, including immediate family, even if you may have been fighting, for the rest of your life? What about your favorite movies? TV Shows? Favorite sports team? Favorite player/players on that team? Will you ever wonder how many Superbowl’s Tom Brady won before he finally called it quits? When you, in three years, have a sudden urge to visit a long lost friend in the city, or you hear that one of your close relatives is getting married, would you be tempted, even for one weak day, to cave to the strict rules of the Amish, and are you then prepared to face the consequences of the church when you return?
- Superiority: It’s more common for the female gender to request joining the Amish. I write this paragraph for you, the woman, who has convinced herself that her troubles will be over with this drastic life decision. Among the Amish, the man is the undisputed leader of the household, and the woman is expected to listen and obey. The man decides where the money will be spent, often making huge decisions, like purchasing a farm in another community, with plans of moving there, without ever informing his wife. In fairness, the wife has a say in lesser things, like naming the children, gardening, cooking, cleaning, and sewing. In short, the wife’s place is in the house, so she gets a say in most household topics. But are you prepared to be a submissive housewife who says ‘yes sir’ to not only your husband, but also to the elders (all men) of the church?
- Birth control/children: In every Amish community I’ve ever lived in, birth control was not allowed. When you think of the perfect life, with a perfect husband and the perfect amount of children, are you taking into consideration that you will be expected to have babies as fast as possibly natural, until you are beyond the childbearing age? The alternative being that you remain single to avoid having a dozen kids, which means no active sex life, as doing so would be punishable within the church by excommunication.
- Personal Hygiene: When I was Amish, we bathed once a week on Saturday nights, the idea being to be clean for church on Sunday. Every Saturday afternoon my mom would stoke a fire beneath an 80 gallon kettle of water, carried there with buckets by the women of the house, and she would heat the water for bathing. After the chores were done and supper eaten, one by one, each member of the family would take their turn going to the basement, dipping 3 or 4 gallons of boiling water into the aluminum tub sitting on the cold, concrete basement floor. After that you'd add enough cold water to get your bath water to the right temperature. After you were finished, you tipped the tub over and your water went down the drain. Then, it was the next sibling's turn. Sometimes the process took so long that the last few in line slept until it was their turn. (There was mom and dad and 13 children) My point… While I know of no rule that forbids bathing or washing more than once a week, most don’t, considering it wasteful. It is considered vain for a woman to try and look good, or in short, to catch the eye of her man. She is not allowed to shave, anywhere, use makeup, paint her fingernails, wear deodorant, wear skintight clothing, or really, do anything that may look like she is taking pride in her personal appearance.
The men, who work in the fields, milk cows, get cow manure on themselves, in the hair and beards, still only bath once a week. I remember, now in disbelief, how on Sunday morning, after my Saturday night bath, we'd do all the chores in the barn, load all the cow and horse manure by hand into the manure spreader, spread it in the fields, milk cows, climb up in the silo and fork down silage and ground corn, and after breakfast, off to church we'd go, and because of my weekly bath the night before, I'd still feel sparkly clean.
Also, in most of the Old Order Amish communities, there are still no indoor bathrooms. Imagine, in the freezing cold winter, or the hot, stuffy, humid heat of the summer, sitting in a frozen, or smoldering two-holer, with only newspapers to wipe with. This was the place for the women. The men did their business in the barns, sitting in a calf pen, and again, with the use of newspapers for wiping. For a man to be caught in the women’s outhouse, is like a man being caught using the women's restroom in public.
- Physical work: Today, I enjoy the occasional day off. I enjoy sitting down and watching a football game on TV. But, you guessed it… It wasn’t always that way. Everything in the Amish community is done by hand with manual labor. For the women this means gardening, quilting, butchering chickens, washing tons of dishes, three times a day, by hand, with water that was warmed by a wood burning stove, wood carried in from the woodpile behind the house, by the women. It means doing laundry with a gas-operated washing machine, breathing exhaust fumes since the activity is done inside a building. Each piece of clothing is manually fed through the ringers, then hung on the clothesline outside for the wind and sun to dry. Since I was not a woman while Amish, and seldom worked indoors, much of this is speculation. Mostly, I remember that there was much emphasis put on preparing three warm meals a day for the men.
For the men, same as the women, the work never stops. In my entire childhood, I can’t remember a single moment where all the work was finished and we had we had nothing left to do. With a father, and eight brothers, this may be difficult to believe, but between a large sawmill operation and a 255 acre farm, there was never a break. If we ever stopped working, it was in the middle of winter when it was so cold that the diesel engine that powered the sawmill, quit functioning because the fuel was gelled. And of course, we rested on Sunday.
In an Amish community, you have no childhood. From my earliest memories I was working in the sawmill, fields, and doing chores in the barn. When outsiders think of the Amish, they have a romanticized idea of leisurely doing a little work, but mostly walking dreamily around lakes and golden fields, the sun is always shining, and it’s never too hot. Maybe they dream of riding horses, fishing, and getting together to pray. Not to dampen any spirits, but if your hands aren’t dirty and calloused, you are considered lazy, and lazy is not a good reputation to have when Amish.
Finally, even if you yourself could do it, what about your children? Do you want your babies growing up without a childhood, without toys, with only an 8th grade education and no possibility of high school or college, and because of your life decision, never knowing their relatives in the outside world—your old family?
- Freedom: A misconception often made is that by joining the Amish your worries will miraculously disappear—that leaving your past behind is the solution to all your troubles. Why not go to a place where people forgive your mistakes as fast as they are made? Allow me to make a comparison. I discovered, shortly after leaving the Amish, that one can be the biggest loser imaginable, and not a soul will do a thing about it, as long as you aren’t breaking any laws. In the outside world, I could live in an apartment and live off the government. I could play X-Box all day and order junk food to my room, and no one will raise a hand to try and force me to make life changes. When you are Amish, however, everything you do, everything you wear, drive, build, and breath, gets regulated and monitored, down to the minutest detail. For the men, the length of your hair, your beard, where you work, how much you work outside the community, how much bling, bling is on your horse or buggy, the style of your house or barn, and the belongings inside or outside of it. Besides the visible things, you are also reprimanded on how you talk, believe, think, and believe it or not, how you feel about something. For those who grew up Amish, we really didn’t know another way, so we accepted this level of micro-managing, but would this be acceptable for someone who grew up in the outside world where, for most of your life, you have come and gone when and where you want?
I could go on and on about topics like mind control, humiliation, or even child or animal abuse. But now is not the time, nor the place. You get the point.
- Divorce: In the outside world, about 50% of all couples that tie the knot remain together for life. The Amish, about 99% success rate, with only the rarest cases being allowed to divorce. In fact, if an Amish spouse, male or female, leaves the Amish, or even goes to jail for life, the one who remains behind may never remarry, in theory always being married to the one who left the relationship, even if the one who left has long ago remarried.
Contrary to popular belief, Amish couples are not hand-picked by parents or the elders of the church. Rather, a couple dates for a time, and both the girl and boy can decide, right up until they say their I DO'S, to change their minds and back out of the deal. However, once married, there is no backing out. There is no annulment, no money back guaranteed. The two are absolutely and certainly stuck to each other for life.
- Speaking the language: Let's face it, learning to speak another language is difficult, and until you learn to speak Pennsylvania Dutch fluently, you will still be somewhat of an outcast within the community.
- Amish for Life: Finally, and I want to be perfectly clear on this point. You can not go try out the Amish lifestyle for a trial period, and if you decide that the life is not for you, you can run back into your old comfort zone that was the world. If you think of the military, boot camp, the grueling workouts in the rain, are tough, at least you can always quit. Even if you choose to stay for several deployments, you are still not required to remain in the forces and fight for life. In short, join the Amish, and you stay for life.
Forgive me for my bluntness in this blog. In fairness, you probably need a second or third opinion, because my view comes from a biased angle. In writing this blog, I found my inspiration in the mass amount of emails I receive from people who wish to join the Amish, and my only desire is educate before you make such a drastic life change.
To Be Continued...