Are these Amish for real or do they roll up their stage set at the end of the day and plop down in front of their flat screen TVs? I asked this question to my friend Jane as we drove from the Amish vegetable stand. Jane laughed and said she knew what I meant. Especially in a world where so much is based on illusion and deception-- the culture of the faux 1950s diner, the faux "handmade" crafts from a factory in China, the idyllic Main Street lined with all-American houses that only mulit-millionaires can afford--it can be almost mind boggling to accept that the Amish really and truly live as they do.
Yet it's true. They may have all the pathologies of the rest of us, but they do live simply. All around in Barnesville, the Amish occupy farms recognizable by simple white frame houses, laundry drying on the line, black metal buggies parked alongside barns. No cars, no electricity.
It's cool to have them here and in the world because money can't manufacture them and because they are a visible reminder that we don't have to live the way we live, with our toxic levels of consumption, violence, stress and waste. There is an alternative lifestyle that is not imaginary, impossible or utopic but which is happening now, all around us. It's flawed, we know that, but it's here.
On the same trip, Jane and I visited our friend "Sarah," an Amish woman who sells us bread--organic homebaked bread for $1.50 a loaf!--milk, butter and eggs. Her house, with its glossy white walls and simple dark curtains, her woodburning stove and long table with the plain white plastic cloth, is filled with the activities of her life--canning, drying apples, sewing, quilting. Although we can never call to tell her we're coming, she always has time for us. Other Amish might not be so welcoming, but she is.
I almost want to cry with gratitude when I see all her happy-seeming chickens wandering around the house grazing because it means I can buy eggs that have not been produced by grossly overcrowded birds whose beaks are torn off at birth to prevent them pecking each other to death from the stress of their living conditions.
Her son, middle-school aged, showed us a "fiction" book he reads, a book of gentle poems about God illustrated with color pictures that must have been drawn in the 1940s and 1950s. He seemed pleased to have it. How many 12 year old boys from our culture would show off such a book? Another time, we came on a holy day in which the family was resting, and the father was coloring in pictures of birds with crayons. What adult male in our culture would do that? I am astonished that such lives are possible.
We so quickly give up the gentle pleasures of childhood--coloring pictures, enjoying simple prayers. Why do these activities seem so silly to us? Aren't we supposed to come to the Kingdom of Heaven as little children?
I made a comment to Jane as we drove up Sarah's rutty dirt driveway towards the road and home that the Amish seem gentler and more at peace than we do and why-don't-we-raise-our-children-their-way? She reminded me that incidents of child abuse among the Amish are about equal to the larger culture. How do we measure child abuse, I wonder? What do these statistics reveal and obscure?
I know it can be easy ... blah, blah ... to idealize the Amish, who, as humans like the rest of us, have the same failings. But as I said to Jane, the Amish don't start wars. They almost never kill people. That's a start. They show us, in the words of Dorothy Day, that we can build a world in which it is easier for people to be good.
As for Quakers, while I don't think we're called to be as removed from the world as the Amish, we share so much in common with the Amish-- the peace and simplicity testimonies for starters--that it's hard not to feel a kinship. Is there a way we can learn from them without either romanticizing their flawed lives or seeing them as nothing more than an outmoded, oppressive patriarchy? Where's the gray area?