Last week I gave the top 10 reasons why you may not be cut out for the Amish life. I admit, after each new blog I post, I find myself holding my breath for a while, often unsure how it will be received. Mostly, although I have been Ex-Amish for almost 11 years, I am not always in touch with what is politically correct or acceptable. Take, for example, the first response I received after the last blog—a response by a woman who with a husband in the armed forces. This woman was upset, and rightfully so, about a statement I made. I wrote… if you think the military, boot camp, the grueling workouts in the rain, etc, 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 hindsight, that statement really went too far in downplaying what the military goes through.
If you read Amish For life: Part I, and thought I was rather hard on the lifestyle, I was. However, I did that to de-romanticize the view of those wishing to join the Amish. I can also assure you that I left areas out that I could have talked about at length, and probably will, in the future.
Anyone who knows the Amish, knows they wish to remain invisible. Out of the spotlight. No cameras, no publicity, no exposure, and no educating the outside world about their lifestyle.
But isn’t it a little late for me to start worrying about opening up to the world, telling my stories and experiences of my time among the lifestyle? After doing Amish in the City, 2004, two stand-alone documentaries in 2010, Amish out of the Order and Amish at the Altar, and finally, Amish: Out of Order, 2012, I have defined myself as one of the few Ex-Amish who is comfortable with being completely open to the world about myself, my personal life, and the life where I came from?
A visit home. My old buggy.
Note the short hair and leather jacket.
In Part II of this blog, I will focus on the positive things about being Amish—the reasons that I stayed until I was 23 years old.
- FOOD: Oh, but the home cooked food! Although I not a picky eater, my mouth waters for a good home-cooked meal. Vegetables grown in gardens without chemicals, steroids, or fertilizer. Homemade mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, strawberries fresh from the garden, milk straight from the udder of a cow, eggs that, although not officially branded organic, might as well be, since they came from a farm where the chickens ate only farm grown food.
And the food cooked up for weddings, holidays, or barn raisings. I have never met anyone matching the appetite of a working farmer who has eaten dust and dirt all day in the fields. I marvel at my mother, who somehow managed to keep enough canned food in the basement over the winter, and plant just enough every spring to feed a growing family of 15. Finally, some of my best memories come from a family of fifteen sitting around a table, sharing stories, and eating food.
- SINGING: I come from a family of Gingerich’s who all had really good singing voices. Some of my fondest memories are of the entire family in barn milking the cows by hand. Not one sound except cows munching on the fresh hay. No electricity, no milking machines, no distractions of radios, cell phones, ceiling fans, or tractors. The only sound—from the far end of the barn, a sister starting a song. Soon, the walls of the barn echoed the joyful voices of many mouths singing a German song by the light of an oil burning lantern. Oh, but if I could just go back in time to those precious childhood days, back when life was young and innocent and without problems. What I wouldn't give to have even a single recording from an evening in the barn singing a song.
Later, we sang in the schools, and finally, when I turned seventeen and started going to the Singens—an event attended by those between seventeen and marriage age—I really started belting out the vocals. Today, I sometimes still drive out to an Amish community on a warm Sunday evening. With their house windows open, I'll sit half a mile away, and I’ll listen to several hundred happy voices singing songs of old.
- CLOSE KNIT: Most Amish families have a bond that is almost impossible to break. When one has spent an entire life working side by side in the fields, sawmills, and woods with your brothers and sisters, when you sing together, pray together, cry together, share your bed with your bothers in the freezing cold upstairs of a Wisconsin farmhouse, and you lay with your backs against each other to create body heat. When you comfort each other after a spanking, walk the three miles to and from school together, and ride together to and from church every Sunday, you develop a bond that is tough to break. Now, I cherish those memories and wish I could go back and relive some of them. I spent most of my childhood trying to get out, but so lost was I in that dream, that I missed many of those moments.
- A HELPING HAND: One of the hardest things to get used to in the outside world was how alone I found myself. I discovered early on that if I buy a car, insurance, rent an apartment—if I fall upon hard times, or in my case, winter arrives and construction work comes to a halt, I am on my own. Even if I had a few friends who would have liked to help me out with a bill here or there, they were as broke as I, because all of them did construction work and lived from paycheck to paycheck as did I. Two weeks after leaving the Amish, I was in a bad car accident. Had I not been wearing a seat belt, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. With no driver’s license, auto insurance, health insurance, or with no money saved, I started off in the negative. My car was totaled, and on top of that, I now owed the hospital over $30,000. To make matters worse, as desperately as I wanted to make money and start digging out of this hole, I was still going to be bedridden for six more weeks. One of my Ex-Amish friends gave me $600. I moved in with a gal I had met a few weeks earlier, who later became my wife. Without those two, I’m really not sure how I would have survived those early years.
I am not complaining. I am simply making a comparison to the Amish life where I had just come from several weeks earlier. A life where, if someone had a huge doctor bill and didn't have the financial means of paying for it, the church pitched in and helped. If that community didn't have enough resources, word was sent to the neighboring communities until the debt was paid. The same happened if someone's house or barn burned down. The community would drop what they were doing. The men would cut down trees on their farm and donate the lumber. The women brought food.
After I left, it took me a while to grasp that if I go to Home Depot to buy tools, and I don't have enough money to pay for them, it is not okay to call someone and ask them to loan me the money until I can pay it back.
- SIMPLICITY: As Christmas nears, I, like so many others, begin to worry about expenses. For some reason it doesn't seem to matter where one works or how much money one makes, whether it be in teaching school, construction, training horses, or finally in automotive sales, the amount of money one makes is almost always barely enough to make ends meet. Murphy's Law, if I have a month where I make a few extra sales, something comes up—transmission goes out in the car, a garage door quits working, time to pay the bi-yearly auto insurance. This is the society we live in, and while I am sounding repetitive, where I come from, there are almost no bills. In fact, bills are rarely discussed. In most Amish homes, there is the mortgage payment. That’s it.
In the outside world there is a constant concern of being politically incorrect, staying up to date on what's trending, or minute details like, who is the current president. (Insert sarcasm here) In the Amish community, they have none of those concerns. The Amish are not in the least concerned with who holds a public office. They don't care if there is a war being fought on terror. That there is a push about going green because of pollution. They don’t care that Mark Sanchez got benched and the Jets are in disarray, or that the world hangs in the balance on whether or not Dallas keeps, or fires, its head coach. Verily I say, if it hasn't been made apparent yet, the Amish have their own set of rules. A set of rules that occasionally clash with those of the outside world, but for the most part, allow them to live a simple life void from the pressures of the world.
- SAFETY: How would you like to live in an environment where no one locked their houses and you could trust your kids to play in the yard for hours unsupervised? How would you feel about your children never having heard the ‘birds and bees’ talk in school until you, as the parent, felt like it was the right time to have that conversation with them? How would you like to live in a world where you didn’t have to worry about what company your kids are hanging out with after school, whether they are drinking, or smoking various smokable objects. Why don't you have to worry? You guessed it, they are at home by your side. Working.
Finally, I know of no instances where Amish stole from each other, violence in schools, or cheating spouses. After I left, I became aware of the Nickel Mines School shooting in Pennsylvania, and more recently heard about the Amish beard cuttings in Ohio. Maybe they are becoming less peaceful these days. But I remember them as peace-loving, out of the spotlight, sort of people.
- DIVORCE: I am repeating myself from PART I of this blog, but Amish marriage works both ways. In blog one I made a case for the inconvenience of ‘once married, always married’ regardless of transgressions. Now, let’s look at the other side of that coin. Once married, regardless how hard you mess up, your spouse will never divorce you, or even leave you, or better yet, go snooping for a lover on the side. Could it be that if both sides of a relationship understand that separation is not a possibility, regardless of the circumstances, they may just work a little harder to try and salvage a struggling relationship? Who knows. I certainly know of a few Amish couples that would have been happier separated, or even with living with different people. Bottom line is, when you say your vows, for better or worse, until death do you part, that is literally binding, and with no ‘get out of jail free’ card. This can work both ways. If you find out, too late, that you aren't happy together, too bad, suck it up. If, on the other hand, you and your spouse are madly in love, good news, you are going to enjoy each other’s company for the rest of your lives, come hail, or flying potatoes…
- RELIGION: Although I am just a simple man, I have come to understand a few simplicities in life. One of these is that every person needs something to believe in—something that completes you—a passion. For many people, this something is religion. If you dig into almost any religion, and believe me, there are many, you will find a common trend. Each and every church or religion believes they possess something that none of the others have—a little extra secret sauce that sets them apart from the rest. Possibly even something more pleasing to God than all the others. There are even those who would go as far as to believe that their church or religion is the one and only correct one and that all the others, dare I say it, are wrong. Personally, I believe that the world is a much better place with religion in it. Or at the very least, I think we are a better society if we have something to be passionate about. The Amish are no different. I could not imagine life among the Amish without church and religion. It is what keeps the community close. Every Sunday you were expected to attend the three or four-hour church services. If you missed it, you better had a really good excuse.
But, what is the Amish belief? Many people have asked me, expecting me to tell them that it is as close to God’s teachings as you will ever find anywhere. I disagree. Now, looking back, the best way to describe the Amish faith is this: it is a mixture of religion, tradition, manmade rules, and superstition. They do believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but splashed in with that belief is their own version of man-made rules and tradition, topped off with a strong helping of superstitious beliefs about anything out of the norm—if someone gets hurt, a barn burns down, there is a horse and buggy accident, or the crops don’t do well, it was all a sign from God that that person was living wrong, or in case of a death, that God needed another angel in Heaven. But like it or not, they are onto something that is lost in the outside world. The method they use has a very low crime rate, and as mentioned above, an almost zero percent divorce rate. After all, they believe with all their heart in what they do. And because of their religious methods, only a very small percentage of us ever leave. Fewer still, remain out.
- HONESTY: For 2.5 years I have sold cars. In that time, I have probably heard it all. Yes, I am aware of the reputation a car salesman has. Rumor has it, we all lie. We are out to screw everyone that walks onto the lot. We are like vultures, seeking out our prey, choosing the weakest as our next target. rust me, I am reminded of this perception every day. Every time I step onto the lot and try to talk to a new customer, I am reminded. Most of the time, it is my job to prove that I am not that last salesman who tried to screw them. For each and every sale, I must prove that I can be trusted. Sounds simple but try doing it four or five times a day, six days a week. After a while your patience runs thin. After a while you just want to walk up and ask a new customer if they are a buyer, and if they say ‘no’, turn and walk away.
However, in fairness to me, the salesperson, it is not nearly always me who is the liar or the bad guy. I have heard every excuse in the book, and many that aren't in it, about why the customer is not ready to commit to a sale today. At first when I was selling cars, I was easily convinced, “Okay, so you need to go home and pray about it for a week? I get it. Come back and see me after you have sorted it all out. Oh, wait a minute, you went right down the street and bought a car from the next dealership, without ever going home and praying about it.”
Take a step back in time to when ‘a man's word and a handshake were all you needed to seal a deal’. Where, if you borrowed money, there was a 100% chance that you would pay it back as soon as the financial situation got better. Where, if you were told something by your Amish neighbor, you had no reason whatsoever to doubt that he was telling the truth.
- WORK ETHIC: Same as in the outside world, for many generations the value of hard work has been handed down from generation to generation. Growing up I sometimes felt like my dad's theory was that the harder one works, the greater the chance of entering the Kingdom of God. I won't bore the reader with long details about how hard me and my siblings had to work, but as I have often mentioned, there was never a moment to play.
Despite my dad’s flaws, and the lack of relationship we had when he passed away when I was twelve, the one thing I can say for sure about the man is this… He was easily the hardest-working man I’ve ever met. And he expected and demanded that each of his sons become an equally hard worker, to the point of almost making slaves out of us.
At age 17, I began my four-year stint as an Amish school teacher. By then, I was all burned out on hard farm work, and realized that I am much happier in front of a room full of children eager to learn. I loved teaching. And it was there, in the schoolhouse, after the children went home, that I would get books from the library, and stories of the outside world would fill the empty voids I felt as an Amish teen.
However, somehow my dad must have gotten through to me. Now, decades later, I am the exact man my father was. At least in regard to the work ethic. I go from dawn to dusk and often late enough into the night that my family doesn’t see me for days at a time. Now, looking back, although I resented the hard manual labor, I have no regrets. I am the man I am today because of my father’s slave-driving mentality. No, I still don’t miss the field work, the hay leaves sliding down inside the back of my shirt collar, with the sweat creating an itch which could often not be reached. I still don't miss the husking corn by hand in two feet of snow in sub-zero temperatures, and I don't miss being the one forking straw in the haymow during thrashing time.
What I do miss are the long walks back to the back forty to bring up the cows for their evening milking. I miss training a horse that an English man labeled untrainable. Mostly, I miss the times when the Amish community had their backs turned and I had a moment to dream about the possibilities of another life—a life on the outside. A life where I could go try my hand at being, English for life.
In conclusion, I hope I was fair in describing both the Pros and the Cons of how I see the Amish life. Now tell me, what will your decision be? Are you still dreaming of another life, one where you are ready to be Amish for Life?