My wife, Judith, certainly isn’t Amish. She’s slightly more attached to a traditional mainline Protestant identity than I am; but my attachment is an ad hoc concoction of personal philosophy and psychology. Judith grew up going to a Lutheran church some Sundays near Pittsburgh. Then, she went away to Boston University and stopped; stopped going to church and stopped thinking about it.
Desperate for a job in her thirties, Judith became a saleswoman for her family’s Pittsburgh company where her territory was the counties in southeastern Pennsylvania, largely inhabited by Amish and Mennonite farmers. It was a far cry from her previous life: managing an art conservation center in Back Bay Boston. I was her boss at that center, which lost its funding after nine years. I was following along, holding the hand of our five-year-old.
If we hadn’t been so desperate for money, we never, ever would have considered doing it. There’s nothing like having kids to make you feel desperate for money. So there we were, in a tiny stone farmhouse in the woods of Pennsylvania. I was supremely skeptical it would pan out. Most of Judith’s customers were Old World men who held the most traditional, centuries-old views of the roles of men and women. We knew the Amish and Mennonite worldview was essentially pre-industrial; and Judith, a woman, was going to sell them small engines? It was a sick joke, on us; especially on Judith.
“Good-bye. Good luck.” I waved at Judith the first day.
My day was filled with household chores and minding our five-year-old. Judith returned nine hours later and claimed it had gone reasonably well. Most of the Amish men at dealerships in barns shared with livestock, had clamped up, folded their arms and had nothing to buy. But some of the more slightly modern Mennonites had been interested and Judith was reasonably hopeful about the Pennsylvania Dutch small dealers.
The problem was, if she ignored the Amish dealers, who dominated the landscape Judith inherited, her sales would suffer severely. Judith loved sales but I worried she’d hate her job, her life down in rural farmland. Our friends were back in the city, far away. Our extended family was hundreds of miles away.
The months passed. My life was surprisingly normal in the stone hut in the woods. One reason was that I was writing fiction, again; I had no time to write in Boston. Even if I had only a couple of hours a day now, I was revived. Plus, I was middle-aged and feeling lucky to raise a child. I missed living in the city, except that my reward for rural isolation was family. How was Judith with all of this, though? I’d ask her and always get a positive, stoic response. Basically, her job was fine, she said.
We added a baby girl to our family and did our best to build a life. After a year, I stopped asking Judith about her job because I didn’t have to; she related intricate details of her days out on the winding country roads of Lancaster and Berks and York Counties. Instead of misogyny and rudeness, Judith was engaging in business transactions, selling engines to all sorts of Amish and Mennonite men.
How could it be? Why would the very people who rejected the machinery of the industrial (and post-industrial), world buy small internal combustion engines from anyone? I did some internet searches and saw that the acceptance of modern technology varied according to the rules laid down by church elders. Those rules changed with time. Judith explained it to me: They use engines to run some household appliances and farming equipment. They bend rules when they can and when they can’t, they seem to acknowledge the benefits of avoiding the social disintegration they see outside their communities.
What didn’t change, if the church elders could help it, was the adherence to the close community, to hard work and to living off the land. Most of the technology they rejected was deemed a threat to those particular values.
It wasn’t how Judith and I wanted to live, but we came to accept the Amish and Mennonites as a self-contained culture. We also admired that they were pacifists.
Talented and hardworking, sales became easy for Judith as years passed. They began to welcome Judith into their communities. She befriended a number of men and women who were Mennonite. Judith even invited some of her customers to lunch out in local restaurants frequented—on special occasions—by Amish and Mennonites.
However, we started to feel like we were shunning the Amish and Mennonites, not the other way around: We never lived off the land, intimately connected to large extended families and tightly knit community. Those weren’t even our ambitions. It was their place ultimately, not ours. We were ready for city life again.
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