This past weekend, I took Mr. B to look at some old trains in Lancaster, otherwise known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It’s always a shock to come upon rolling green hills, horses and buggies, silos attached to farm houses, men with long beards and suspenders. You feel, immediately, like you are transported in time. It’s a bit surreal. Cows lounge under large trees, corn stalks bend to the whirr of air-conditioned cars passing.
A ruddy eight-year-old boy approached me as I got in my car, and through garbled language, asked me if I wanted to buy the wooden trains he offered me in a plastic bag. From what I could gather, they would cost me 22 dollars. I said “No, thanks,” and wondered where his parents were. I bought a Shoo-Fly Pie (aptly named because it’s so sweet) from a woman at a roadside produce stand, and in her heavy rural accent, she told me it went well with coffee and ice cream. You drink coffee and eat ice cream? I thought. Just like me?
Despite our mutual love for baked goods, the lives of the Amish are, obviously, starkly different from mine. On a Saturday, while we suburbanites eat hamburgers and relish the old-time feel of a train ride through the country, the Amish are working, tilling fields, selling pies and fruit, trimming bushes and sweeping up dirt. In the sticky Pennsylvania heat, they wear long dresses and pants, hats and kerchiefs. What is their respite? How do they unwind, relax? Do they tire of their lives the way we on the outside do?
It seems that each time I come into contact with an Amish person, I am forced to think about the very divergent paths our lives have taken. Last year, very pregnant, I treated myself to a large cheese danish at the Amish bakery in a local farmer’s market. My husband had just gotten me an iPhone for my birthday, and I was conflicted about whether I should keep it. While on the one hand, it seemed the most fabulous toy an adult could imagine, a marvel of modern technology, I worried that it would tie me down, prevent me from being in the moment. Constant access to email and the internet is convenient, but it means constant access to the email and the internet, constant temptation to plug in.
I put my coffee and danish to the side while I pressed on apps and tried to type. The woman who had just sold me my danish sat near me with her own snack, and I almost blushed. What must she think of me, my focus not on the sights and sounds of people, a delicious breakfast, a growing belly, but my eyes glued to a small rectangular screen?
It’s typical to think that the Amish reject our lifestyle. After all, each teenager experiences a period called rumspringa, when they experiment with the technology and habits of the outside culture and choose whether or not to remain Amish. Since most do, it’s safe to assume that after using cell phones, driving in cars, drinking alcohol, and engaging with the rest of us, they recognize that so much of our lives are plagued with petty distractions that take us away from core beliefs and practices. Are we any happier with the latest iPhone or computer software, with flat-screen TVs and GPS systems in our cars? With fancy clothes? Washing machines? (I’ll go out on a limb here and say that yes, we are happier with washing machines, if nothing else.) How much of our lives are dictated by wants, by unnecessary, fleeting but alluring pleasures, elixirs that divert us from what might bring us greater happiness if only we took the time to step back and experience, acknowledge, breathe, know ourselves?
It would probably be more helpful to imagine that instead of rejecting our culture, we have rejected the ways of the Amish, the ways of old. We have bought into the values of progress and modernity, of forging our own paths and accepting the American ideal of individuality. If we admit it, this degree of freedom can be scary. To not know where this road leads us, to have to seek out rather than automatically be part of a community, to see the days stretching before us, knowing we must create them anew by ourselves.
I imagine there must be great relief, abundant comfort, in tilling a field your family has owned for generations, in hanging wet clothes in a pasture where the women before you–and the women before them–watched their children play.
Our power has gone out a few times this summer due to heavy storms. Aside from issues of heat during the bitter days of winter or air-conditioning during a heat wave, I see power outages as an opportunity. People gather on their porches, kids play outside, play with puzzles or read books, meals remain simple. A few months ago, a power outage at night meant that Husband and I lit candles and sat on the couch to think, to talk. We enjoyed the peace and the dim of our living room; we went to bed early and slept well. Each time this has happened, I greet the return of power with a bit of relief and a bit of sadness. What might we learn about ourselves and each other without the din of electronics keeping us awake, keeping us distracted?