Sunday, August 24, 2008


I was reading in the paper yesterday, that the Amish population is doubling, due to bigger family size - they're spreading out incredibly successfully.

I can see the appeal of living an Amish life - the simplicity, the honest work, the farming, the baking, not so much the constricting and repressive religious aspect, but the spirituality, yes.

Michael Longley's poem An Amish Rug is one of my favourites.

As if a one-room schoolhouse were all we knew
And our clothes were black, our underclothes black,
Marriage a horse and buggy going to church
And the children silhouettes in a snowy field,

I bring you this patchwork like a smallholding
Where I served as the hired boy behind a harrow,
Its threads the colour of cantaloupe and cherry
Securing hay bales, corn cobs, tobacco leaves.

You may hang it on the wall, a cathedral window,
Or lay it out on the floor beside our bed
So that whenever we undress for sleep or love
We shall step over it as over a flowerbed.

He says about it:
When I was in Lancaster County in the 1980's, I bought an Amish rug as a gift for my wife. I wrote a poem about it some time later, a love poem which is in a way almost religious. There is something devout about making anything well. The Amish rug maker who pieced together our rug out of rags all those years ago now lights up our lives every day. He really has created for us a cathedral window.

And if you'll excuse the further digression, I love how Longley empathises with the rug maker, blends his experience with his own, and the sanctity of the Amish marriage with his own love for his wife. Such romance in this marriage poem. The rug becomes a flower bed, a symbol of fertility, the continued blossoming of their relationship. His insistence on the speaker as human, humorous, as real rather than caricature or stereotype is masterful as well.

But! Back to my point. The article discussed the concept of 'Rumspringa', which I think basically means room to run - and also refers to adolescence, and how one explanation for the growth of the population is that teens who decide they don't want to adopt the lifestyle and faith of the group are cut off from the community and their families. So they stay.

I'd like to talk about this a little more. I saw a programme on Rumspringa a few years ago. Initially I thought, great. The Amish don't baptise their babies - they let their teenagers have this period where they go out of their communities and live as any modern teens do -they drink, they do drugs, they listen to modern music, they get to drive cars and doubtless sleep around. Then they get to come home and decide whether they want to stay Amish or go out in to the world, having seen it for real.

I thought, how balanced. An informed choice. Except, it's not that clear cut. If they do decide to go out into the world, they can't come back. They can come home, but no one will talk to them, they're dead to the community. Fair enough, you might say, how else would the the Amish ways survive - you can't really live that lifestyle if your 19 year old's in college, and is bringing girls home to listen to rock and have a shag in their bedroom, while you're getting up at four to bake bread or milk cows or pray.

But when I looked at it closer, I saw one major flaw. The teenagers are sent out into the world, after their cloistered childhood, without any familial support. They're thrown out there, without protection - it's not a realistic view of a modern teenager's life. I think that adolescence is a time for experiment and testing of boundaries, but for me, what's important about it is that there's a safety net. You find your feet, but you have parents, family, a support network behind you, to reign you back in. Role models. The Amish kids are thrown out there into a wonderland of pointlessness they have no preparation for - sure the drink and drugs and partying and driving are fun, but it's a pretty nihilistic experience all on your own, and so far removed from everything you grew up with. Some of the kids on the programme got pretty messed up, dealing, getting in trouble, struggling terribly with their choice of stay or go.

And I felt the attitude of the Amish community was 'see, see what happens, our way is so much better'. But it wasn't a balanced view, it wasn't the experience of the average teen who balances dating and partying with household chores and exams, with their parents leading the way, being a safe target to rebel against. Of course it's going to be negative if you're just thrown out there - so the kid who got in trouble had a lot of issues giving up his life in the world, but felt like he had to come home, he needed the guidance. Less clear cut was the girl who loved her family, but wanted to go to college, she wanted to be a social worker. So she had to choose between that and her family and community. It was really sad.
I think there's a message here about how we need to treat our teenagers and keep them safe and coming home to us. Enough freedom, but always with unconditional strength and support from us in the background so they don't freefall. We are the bungee chord!


Boggle said...

Jo, a most thoughtful post. Have you seen Weird Al's take on the Amish issue? He's poking fun, but there's a hint of affection there too, methinks.

jothemama said...

Ha, Weird Al. I think the Amish, after black people, provide the modern American with a 'Not Me' package. How can they quantify their way of life?

My father is very impressed by the Shaker lifestyle (apart from the celibacy, apparently) - but when I picked up his book on their beautiful furniture and farms, the first thing that caought my eye was one of their proverbs: 'the hands may fall off, but the work goes on'. Eee!

PĂ©itseoga said...

i think 'rumspringa' means 'jumping around' (if it's derived from german?) like young deer or foles jump around excitedly and boisterously?

Momentary Madness said...

Quite frankly I find it inhuman/insane to cast you child out to a very dangerous world like it’s a game of pick and choose.
My kids have made some very scary choices so far in testing the boundaries as you put it. Choices being the operative word: three times now my daughter picked the wrong road, one with a psychopath personality she/we found out gladly just in time. However. All of her choices (without us being able to put our finger on it at the time) seemed a little off course, but we (my wife and I) prefer to (at least try) mind our own business, and speak when spoken to (unless you rub our faces in it.) Anyway!
We were here for her when she had to flee, lost all her possessions, and stood by her until she got back on the road to wherever to now who knows but hopefully to happiness.
I labor the point sorry!. You’ve got to stand by your children in times of need. It’s the right thing to do. They’re your own flesh and blood for better or worse. O yes, how could I forget or not mention what is the greatest gift of all and why you would want to stand by them, because you love them.

Tuesday Girl said...

Thw Amish are such wonderful people, they are fascinating to me.

Thanks for stopping by my blog!
I go to a homeopath also and just adore him.

jothemama said...

hey, Tuesday Girl, thanks for dropping by too. It's nearly Tuesday!

Holemaster said...

Interesting post Jo. I didn't know the Amish did that. I wonder when they started or did they always do that. What happened back in the Little House On the Prairie Days when it was all the same?

But what really caught my attention was the devotion to producing good quality work. As my Dad used to say... "If a job is worth doing, it's worth doing well".

Manuel said...

I liked witness......han solo's in it......

Xbox4NappyRash said...

The Amish lifestyle is fascinating to watch.

I've been to Intercourse (I kid you not, its the town name)a few times and it's amazing stuff.

jothemama said...

My cousin was going to go work with them for a summer, but foot and mouth struck.

Xbox, the irony of you ahving been to Intercourse a few times is not lost on me :(

Xbox4NappyRash said...

I hadn't thought of that.

You couldn't make this stuff up eh?

jothemama said...

Well, it's not the same but my sister once wrote a story for her creative writing masters about an impotent guy who lived in Stillorgan.