I will never forget the look on my younger brother’s face when, through the rear view mirror of the old 1988 Diesel injected Volkswagen, I watched him grow smaller and smaller. The look was one of total disbelief. “Why? Why leave now? After all you have overcome, why give up on the Amish life now?”
The English driver kept going, and the further the home farm moved into the distance, the harder the tears of frustration fell into my lap. And yet, my brother’s face haunted me, as it would for years to come. We had grown together, spent years of back-breaking labor side by side in the fields plowing, planting, shocking oats, husking corn, and putting up hay. We had spent what seemed like a lifetime cutting down trees for our sawmill, using a handheld two-man saw. In those days, with my storytelling blossoming, when we’d stop for a break, I would sit on a log and spin yarns, and he, knowing full well that they were fairytales, would insist that I continue. Thus, grew tales of me meeting, in those same woods, Indians with bows and arrows, and me, narrowly escaping with my life, sometimes by riding a cow to safety, other times by crawling inside a log and burrowing out of sight for days on end until the Indians gave up the search.
Heck, until we were about 13 and 14, me and my little brother even shared the same bed—a bed where, when it was 25 or 30 below zero in frigid Wisconsin winters, we would curl up under the quilt and put our backs together for warmth until the shivering subsided enough for us to doze off to sleep. Later, when we got older, we went hunted together. And later still, we went to the Singens together. Then, somewhere along the way, I started our paths start going in different directions. I, with a sense of adventure, started buying radios, something that was strictly forbidden, and he, ashamed of my sinful ways, began to withdraw. Even then, while he was doing the more responsible Amish thing—starting his own construction team and building his won sawmill operation, I was sneaking out to the woods and listening to my radio or catching up on the latest world news on a neighbor’s TV, and he, always begging with me to settle down and change my sinful ways. Perhaps even then, he knew how it would all end.
As I sit here writing these words, out of the corner of my eye I watch my four-year-old daughter playing in the basement next to me. She spends several patient minutes switching out of one of her Halloween costumes and into another, all the while prancing in front of me for approval. And I give her the approval. Early and often. Then, in the same instance, I see that haunting look on my little brother’s face—see it in my own daughter’s face. The two faces are the same, but they are very much not the same. They are same in that she has the Gingerich features, the Gingerich smile, and the ornery Gingerich laugh. But they are different, because his is always haunted, while her, at four, understanding nothing about my past, loves and accepts me always and unconditionally, regardless of my past. And in the moment, I wonder who us right and who is wrong? Or is it not possible to have one foot in each life? Is it not possible to have a relationship with the little brother of my past, while also maintaining a life in the world outside?
My mind then drifts to the crossroads, and how different my life would be had I not left the Amish for good on that day ten years ago. Had I stayed Amish, almost certainly by now I would be married and have not one, but half a dozen children, all running around and seeking my approval. But could I give it to them if we were Amish? A thing like that would be frowned upon. Would I be happy had I stayed? Or, would I live a life of misery, regardless how many children, and how precious they all were to me? Had I remained Amish, right now, today, I would be cultivating a field of corn. Tomorrow, well tomorrow I would probably be greasing the gears of an oats binder in preparation for harvest. And this weekend my family and I would be traveling to church—would my family by bow be so large that we needed one buggy, or two?
Had I remained Amish, would I, like so many predicted, have been ordained preacher. Perhaps, right now, in preparation for my next sermon, I might be studying the New Testament—a German version of the bible.
But instead, the life I chose—a life in the outside world, saw me today, working in a stressful environment at my regular job selling cars. It saw me come home, eat dinner with my English family, instead of the Amish one I was expected to have. And I ponder the questions that I am writing down in this blog. Am I where I am needed? Does God truly still have a bigger plan for me in the outside world? If so, can I remain patient until that plan is revealed to me? Or is it enough that I am free—free from the chains of bondage and manmade religion that suppressed me for so long?
Tonight, my little brother’s face haunts me. Tomorrow, I wake up and my new life goes on. My brother’s face will be back. It will be back when the holidays come and I remember that the rest of the family I left behind is all getting together to celebrate. It will come when I am telling Indian stories to my four-year-old daughter at night while trying to put her to sleep. It will come in my dreams. And it will keep coming, for many more years.
But that is okay. Because today, on the ten year anniversary of my leaving the Amish, I am not sad. Sad was when I lived Amish and wanted desperately to get out and experience freedom. Sad was when the preachers kept coming to me and pressuring me to change things that truly inspired and thrilled me, like telling scary Indian fairytales to other Amish kids.
No, today, I am happy. For whether English or Amish, whether with large family or small, I am free. And after ten years of this life, I can truly say that my worst day of freedom is still better than was my best day in captivity.