Monday, June 20, 2011

Plain and Simple

Yesterday I was flipping through a Class of 2011 Yearbook and came across a page titled Tatoos and Piercings.  Plastered on the page were actual tatoos and piercings of the HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS!  Several thoughts flashed through my mind.  First, how are high school students even old enough to obtain tatoos and piercings (neither of which I am opposed to on ADULTS!)?  Second, was thank the lord my girls have the opportunity to opt out of this rite of passage called High School, where pop culture has clearly influenced children in such a permanent way.
I wonder if as I was interacting with the Amish in Pennsylvania last weekend that same thought was thought of me.  We are all influenced by the culture in which we live to some degree.  We call Lilah our little fashionista because she acts as my personal stylist!  Grace is my techy kid who can operate my cell phone better than I can!  We must seem as radical to the Amish, as high school students flaunting their multiple facial piercings seems to me.
While I was fresh off my trip to Pennsylvania, I read a memoir of an artist living in Berkeley and New York who took time out of her life to visit with Amish families after falling in love with their quilts.  She defines herself as an artist which is crucial to understanding this book since she seeks to learn more about the art of the Amish and they Amish do not define themselves as artists.
I had mixed feelings about this book.  It took me a week of reflecting to form an opinion.  Based on the reviews from Amazon readers, there is no way I would have picked up this book online or even at the library.  This is a memoir, just a piece of a woman’s life captured in writing.  It is not a biography or even a study of the Amish but information was shared that helped me understand the Amish better.
I know know that they go barefoot to feel a deeper connection to the Earth.  The are grounded in their faith and they are grounded in their care of the soil.  It reminded me of yoga.  You practice yoga barefoot so that you can experience a feeling of awareness in your feet. What am I grounded to?  What anchors me in my life?  Do I have enough faith to take the teachings literally, discarding all modern temptations that come through electricity (such as this laptop) and focus my entire being on living my faith?  
Also notable was the running of the Amish home.  In the Amish religion there is a clear delineation of responsibility based on gender.  Simply put, the women are homemakers and the men are farmers.    The author looked at this with disdain since she was almost proud not be a homemaker and domestic in her nature.  It is as if her profession of creating art also defined her personality as artist and with that she assumed a life of freedom, self expression and little responsibility to the house and home.  I always wonder how women can raise children and profess not to cook.  How is this possible?  The Amish value the home.  It is a place of peace but also of productivity.  Every single part of running a household is valued from canning, to cleaning, to laundry, to childcare, to cooking and even creating items that many consider breathtakingly beautiful.  But to the Amish it is no big deal because they are ordinary people, doing ordinary tasks that honor their God.  They are not exceptional in any way because to be so would be false pride and only God is perfect. I think to many of us it seems idyllic because our own culture has devalued the homemaker to the point of making her comedic.  I love the sitcom, The Middle.  But I find the mother, Frankie, to be a bit of a wreck as a mother and homemaker.  Yet, I laugh often out loud because so much of that show reflects what modern families face on a daily basis.
I found the author to be judgmental of the families she stayed with.  The first family was clearly defined by gender roles.  Through her choice of words, the author looks upon this with disdain. The second family was a bit different in that two sisters live together, one unmarried and a midwife who would have attended medical school if she could have done so without giving up her religion and her entire community.  The other sister, also a midwife, has a house full of children, and a home to run, but despite the sheer amount of work, she also has a thriving midwifery practice.  In this house the author felt more comfortable and stayed for quite some time.  Realizing that this is a memoir, not a anthropological study of an American sub-culture, I feel the author has leeway to interject her personal thoughts and feelings, even if those give the reader the impression that she is a self-absorbed person and quite judgmental and as such, probably still has much more to learn from the Amish...
I recommend this book.  It is a short read and gives us a first hand glimpse into a life that is often looked at through car windows and tourist traps.  I longed to visit an Amish homestead, understand how they are able to farm such expansive stretches of land efficiently, raise their children peacefully, garden organically, and put their faith foremost in their lives.  This book gave me the ability to do that vicariously through Ms. Bender’s experience.  


MamaTea said...

I too read this book recently and wasn't really sure what my opinion was. I've always found the Amish interesting and enjoyed reading about them and visiting the areas of our state where they live. But this book left me uncomfortable. I too felt the author moved into their home and then was really judgmental about who they were and what they did. I'm not sure if it was her writing style or what, but something didn't sit right with me. To me, it felt kind of like someone from the big city who thinks the Amish quilts are "cute" and then decides to go see what these "little people" are like. And then gets to stay with them (which I still could NOT believe!) and makes little comments about how they lived which seemed to be based in why she thought what they were doing was "wrong", in a sense. Which I found comical, because I'm not sure the Amish families she stayed with really cared what she thought about how they lived. ;) Just my two cents. :)

Jessica said...

YES! You expressed my feelings perfectly. I still found substance in the book but I could not help but wonder what the Yoder's would have thought if they read this book. It is a gift to be welcomed into someone's home and I felt that she could have chose her words more carefully to express her feelings. Or she could have went home.

karisma said...

Its all food for thought really isn't it? One persons feelings or views compared to another's? We can watch, we can listen, we can learn but we don't necessarily have to agree!

I also am not overly fond of tattoos and/or too many piercings. I learned the hard way that if its not my body its not my choice. My oldest girl pierced her own nose when we said no, then she pierced her lip. She was about 16 at the time and I nearly died. Thankfully it left no scarring and she got over it quickly. The tattoo however turned up on her 18th birthday when she and her boyfriend went out and got matching ones on their backs. They are small but still!!!! Mama horrors! Our 2nd daughter never contemplated such things but our 3rd wanted a piercing, being a metal bar in her upper ear and in the end we allowed it as we did not want the repetition of self piercing to happen. Hers was done in a sterile environment and she still has it, although her hair covers it so its not so noticeable. I cannot fathom why anyone would want to do such a thing to their body but to teenagers I guess these things are attractive. If only I could have "gone home" and none of it would have happened hey? Ahhh life is full of such "if only's".

Jessica said...

Thanks Karisma. I needed to read your comment to realize that I may in fact have done the same thing I criticized the author of doing - judging! I am not against either piercings or tattoos, in fact I have wanted a nose piercing since I was 12....but I was shocked to see them displayed on the pages of a high school yearbook. It was next to the page where the kids were showing off their cars. Yup a whole yearbook pages dedicated to their audis, mercedes and volvos. Really? Are they Cullens?

I also received an email off blog that made me realize I may be a bit naive about how I interpret Amish life, that just like our mainstream life (or what ever version of mainstream I am living) has its own set of issues, obstacles to overcome and hardships. I feel that I internalized some values that I have about how I want to live my life after this trip, but need to realize that looking at a culture through rose colored glasses does not always give you an accurate view. Thanks Dad!

Karen said...

I really try to be a cool, hip Mom and think I am most of the time but I can't imagine casually letting Kei pierce or tattoo anything in the immediate future!!!

The Mennonites live up in Tennessee and while my Mom and Dad visited there many times I have never been. After reading your Amish story I have looked them up online and are planning a trip soon.

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