Monday, June 21

Taste the rainbow.

Fact: i am pretty smitten with the Amish (and i suppose, the Mennonites and other various 'plain' cultures). A long time ago at a stained glass store far, far away, my friend Sherri, a thin bookkeeper with artsy glasses and short hair, gave me a book called Plain and Simple.

i read that thing from cover to cover in a couple of days, easy. Inhaled it. The thought that there could be another way of life, free from stuff: free from technology and advertisements, traffic noise and ATMs, swimming pools, brand names and artificial colors and flavors, free from all things hustle-bustle, really invigorated me. In a powerful way, i yearned for that life. Yarn, oxen, wood and grass felt very real, and very close.

As an entirely non-religious person, however, it was a conflicting feeling. i have never understood the need to believe in something that somehow 'explains' 'it all'. The 'answers' are all around us, all of the time. It seems to me that faith in one's self should be first and foremost; without that, what do you really have? On the other hand, losing yourself so completely to a shared way of life with the close-knit community around you sounds mighty appealing to someone like me: a self-centered anxious hermit crab who is always wondering what everything 'means'.

All of these feelings were refreshed by the book Nat recently gave me, The Riddle of Amish Culture, by Donald B. Kraybill. Written in 1989, it certainly feels a bit dated, and being that it is a sociology book, it leans heavily on the history, customs, and belief systems of the Amish, really quite different fare from the personal, day-to-day quirks i had read about years ago in Plain and Simple.

Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of bloodshed and martyrdom in those old (Protestant) roots – religion tends to have a stain of that wherever you find it. The belief system is really quite simple: obedience to Christ. They separate themselves from the evil (modern, outside) world, and excommunicate errant members of their society (shunning*). Sounds severe, no? But they value hard work, patience, and humility, three things which i live by.

Then i came across one simple sentence that flipped a switch in my mind: it reminded readers that in Amish society, wives are meant to be subservient to their husbands. [an insider discussion here.] Obviously, this is not unique to the Amish people, but it got me thinking: did a religion exist in which women held equal sway? After all my waxing romantic over the Pennsylvania Dutch, i was suddenly left hotly bitter.

With a bit of searching, the only one i could turn up was the Bahá'í faith, a religion formed (quite recently) in 19th-century Persia. In fact, if i was forced to ascribe to a 'recognized' spiritual belief system, it would probably be this one. The unity of humankind seems like a pretty simple idea to me, and one worth striving for. i'm sure i'll find my problems with it, though, just like i have with every other religion, faith, and creed out there.

For now i suppose i'll stick with my particular blend of heathen nature-worship. It's what i do best, certainly, and it's carried me this far... i am filled with reverence every single day, and it's never once felt forced. Having a healthy spiritual life has never really figured far up on the ladder for me, but maybe it was there all along, quietly flowing. That wistful Amish life i'd always dreamed of will remain a fantasy, and i will have to be content with mooning over the Mennonites at the farmer's market of my hometown in Montana, offering their beautiful jars of rose-hip jelly. Our religious differences don't have to be an impasse - it doesn't mean we can't still connect as human beings.

Unfortunately, however, this can be the reality in our world. But maybe next time instead of worrying that a Plain teenager will balk at (or silently judge) my bright pink hair and sparkly eyeshadow, i should just strike up a conversation about, say, goldfinches, and see where it takes us.

*Check out Devil's Playground for a modern, somewhat sensational portrayal on Rumspringa, the period during which a young Amish person 'grows up', and decides whether to live their life within or without.