On Friday, I visited an Amish farm. I was quite excited to go.
The farm was a few miles from where I live, off a narrow, gravel road and down a windy, rutty driveway into a hollow.
My first thought was "this isn't the 19th century, it's the 18th century."
Before us was a white frame farmhouse with a cow and dozens of red chickens strutting around in the foresty front yard. It reminded me of the Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, in which pigs and poultry live outside the Bennet's door. I saw a black buggy tucked near the side of an outbuilding.
We met "Sara" and her son. Sara wore a long, light blue workdress, black work boots, and spoke with what sounded like a German accent. She was very kind. She showed us pears she had ripening between two blankets in her living room. One variety will become pear butter; the other will be preserved. The room also held a woodburning stove and a single bed with a quilt.
In her kitchen/dining room she had a long, narrow dining room table covered with a plastic tablecloth. I remember an enamel sink. Under the windows along the wall overlooking the front yard, she had shelves filled with empty glass canning jars. The walls of both rooms were bare, as you would expect, except for hooks for hanging clothes and implements. The walls were painted sky blue and white. Everything was very still and serene.
While there, I was struck by two things. The first that I was talking to a woman who really could have been transported straight from the 18th century. She may never have seen television or driven in a car. The difference between her, and say, a Jane Austen character, however, is that she would be aware of cars and television and other forms of technology.
The second was a flash I had, one of those moments of opening, when you really, truly see how excessively we "English" live. I don't want to idealize the Amish, and as people tell me, and I agree, I wouldn't --or couldn't-- live as they do. I'm a creature of my culture and moving to a technologically primitive farm life would be painful and difficult for me. That's not to say it wouldn't be "better" (how do I know?) but I imagine that, like one of those children raised by wolves or dolphins, I couldn't, at my age, make the transition. That said, I had my flash, standing in that simple, unadorned home, of how we overload our homes with stuff. No wonder there's an epidemic of obesity (aside, of course, from the glut of food). Our homes are filled with plush, upholstered sofas and armchairs, thick carpets, remote controls, every convenience that would encourage us to loll around being inactive. With its pears and canning jars lined up as if she were running an apothecary shop, Sara's home, in contrast, was a workplace. There was nothing upholstered, no entertainment center. It was a place to work, to eat, and to sleep. Quiet though it was, it seemed more a center of a life than perhaps many of our homes do. It seemed idyllic. It seemed like a miracle that such a place and such people still exist.
Anyway, I thought of those high Victorian rooms you see in photos or sometimes reproduced in museums, where every inch of space is covered in patterned wallpaper, tasselled pillows, and dozens of pieces of bric-a-brac crowded onto every conceivable surface. The rooms are so overstuffed and overdone you can want to throw up. And for just a second, I saw that perhaps we live the same way. That we do live the same way.
I had a similar flash about six years ago. (These flashes, which stick with me, seem to be places where the Eternal breaks through to critique the Now.) It was raining and the kids had to go to school. I began a frantic search for the boys' hooded raincoats, recently purchased. I found jackets, coats and sweaters of every conceivable sort hanging on hooks, on hangars, even crumpled into backpacks, but no raincoats. And I had that flash that we are drowning in such excess that it becomes a form of deprivation. You can't find what you need. You replace order with chaos. I say this, too, knowing we were hardly the most high consumption family in the neighborhood. We were trying to live simply.
While I can't realistically conceive of living exactly as the Amish do, I admire them for putting God at the center of their lives. I see them as patterns, not to be slavishly followed, but from whom we can learn. And I feel grateful to William Penn for opening up this country to them.