From My Amish World to My Vermont One — The Second Time

49FaithfulCharger

David’s “Faithful Charger” outside my parents’ home in 1981

Lately I have been reading my journals that I wrote in the months and years following the second and final time I left my Amish community. I’ve also been reading letters I received from “home” during that time. What I am concluding is that I would not want to go back and experience my young adult life again. What a tumultuous time! I felt so torn between the Amish life I grew up in and the life I chose.

There were so many logistical details to attend to when I made the transition from my Amish life to my Vermont one. According to my journal, I spent my first days in Vermont shopping for new clothes, opening a bank account, looking for work, signing up at the Adult Basic Education Center, and looking for a place to live.

I was also in search of a new church community. Less than a month after I left, David was away at a craft fair, and I wrote this in my journal:

A very quiet day. I went to the Unitarian Church all by myself. I wasn’t impressed at all. It just wasn’t inspiring. I spent the time sitting there thinking about how much I’d like to be at the Amish church right then.

After leaving church I went down by the park on the end of Pearl Street, overlooking the lake and the Adirondack Mountains. I felt pretty good after that. It’s always inspiring to see the wonders of nature. It makes me feel close to our Creator.

When I came back, I studied science, then put in David’s quilt and worked on it. I really miss David tonight.

There is so much I can read from this journal entry today that I wouldn’t have been aware I was conveying at the time. The fact that I wrote that I missed the Amish church is revealing. I thought I was good at burying these thoughts of missing aspects of home back then.

It is not surprising that I found looking at the wonders of nature inspiring. I still find that beauty in nature feeds me spiritually.

Studying science on a Sunday? Now that surprises me, especially so soon after leaving the Amish. I would not have been studying science on any day back in my community, never mind on a Sunday. Another surprise is that I was quilting on a Sunday. That would never do in an Amish community, either. I am surprised that I abandoned the Amish ways so soon.

When I read the letters “from home” from that time frame, it is no wonder I was in turmoil. These letters were brimming with Amish guilt — about the promise I had been required to make when I was baptized that I would stay with the Amish church for the rest of my life and how I had broken that promise; about how hard this was on Mem; and about how I would one day have to pay when it was time for me to meet my Maker.

No one was quite so skilled at pulling on my guilt strings as Mem. When I left the second time, I was on good terms with her. When I decided to leave, I had taken her for a walk to let her know what I was about to do. I was astounded when she shared with me that she once had the chance to marry outside the Amish, and how she had always wondered what that would have been like. Maybe it is a stretch to say she was giving me permission to leave, but she at least conveyed that she understood why I was doing it.

Mem was often of two minds, especially when it came to issues of being Amish. She would have been appalled that she had “let it show” but it was so very obvious to me. She would often open the door to her true feelings just a crack, and then quick as a wink, she would shut that door and lock it. I would be standing there, wondering if I had imagined what I’d seen or heard.

So when Mem wanted to take back what she had shared on our walk, it should have come as no surprise — and yet it was always jolting when Mem made one of her U-turns. Here is part of what she wrote, just 10 days after our walk together (I’ve changed some names for anonymity):

Dear Saloma:

Sunday eve. Just a few lines from me so you know I or us think of you. We were in church and many people asked about you. […] We left your things as was till now. Except the girls cleaned out pantry and dad and I brought over all that and cubbard [cupboard] things. I think we’ll just leave it for a while yet unless Wills get a notion to rent it then they’ll let us know. The girls brought home some of your clothes but I left everything else hang for the time being. Just in case you change your mind and come back. That way it’s easier if you do. I mean for you.

[…]

Oh, Saloma — I’m worrying for fear I didn’t encourage you enough to try and stay as you were. And through that you’ll see or have lots of heartaches. I feel such a failure as a Mother [mother] at times. But I’ve decided to try to live for the good things I still have. Maybe I’ll see better times ahead. Rhoda Troyer seemed much better. More herself. Think Lena looks some better. She was really bad right after you left. If Gertie and I don’t end up in a nervous breakdown yet, will be a wonder. Such as all is! […] Love from Mom

Here is a good example of how Mem had opened the door a crack to allow me to see her true self when we were on that walk — and how she now wanted to shut that door and lock it — when she wrote that she worried that she didn’t encourage me to stay “as I was,” which I think means Amish. I was sure what she had told me had come right from her heart and I knew I would remember it always, so I was not about to let her close that door. If I remember right, when I wrote back I said that once the toothpaste is out of the tube, she could not put it back, just like when words from the heart have been spoken, they cannot be unspoken.

I believe Mem was sometimes torn between being a mother and being Amish. When she wrote about other people asking about me in church, and what they were doing with my Amish belongings, she was being a mother. There were other times when she put being Amish before being a mother. This is when she would pull on the guilt reins by writing things like, “I feel like such a failure as a mother at times.” And then writing about others’ mental illnesses, and how she and another person in the community were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. My role in my family was to be the “fixer.” I think Mem knew what she was doing. She was trying to appeal to this role, implying that I could fix everything by coming home and taking up my place in the community.

It is no wonder I was in such turmoil. I already was struggling with finding my way in a world so different from my Amish one. The pressure from Mem and others only intensified my struggle.

What sustained me through all this turmoil was being free to develop my relationship with David. After having been separated for nearly three years, it was so good to be with him. A month after I left, I wrote this in my journal:

We decided we’d like some quiet time to ourselves. It had just started to snow in powdery, soft puffs. So we drove out to Redrock Apartments. It was so quiet and peaceful. So were my feelings — spiritually and for David. Some nights I like being with David so much, just having the feeling of his arms around me and being there. Tonight was one of those nights.

Oh, the sweet tenderness of being with David! I feel such gratitude for these feelings — back in December 1980, and in all the days, months, and years since then. Throughout all the struggles he and I have been through, this is what has sustained us.

I’ve had conversations with people my age who long to go back to the days of their youth. Not me. In looking back, I am amazed that I made it through all those tumultuous years. I am glad to have the distance from that turmoil that the intervening years allow me without losing the insights I’ve gleaned from having gone through those struggles. To me, this is the best of both worlds.

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23 thoughts on “From My Amish World to My Vermont One — The Second Time”

  1. l’m with you, Saloma. I don’t want to go back to my youth and the difficult things I went through. It sounds like you are working through your next move and where to go. That’s also very difficult. I hope all of your wishes come true.

  2. Saloma,

    Hello from Prospect Connecticut – one of your favorite librarians…

    Besides being a librarian i also a member of a local lions club.
    We get a monthly magazine as part of our dues….

    I thought you’d like to see an article about 2 of our members:
    2 blind amish sisters who have left the amish and are now lions.

    http://digital.lionmagazine.org/publication/?i=328080#{“issue_id”:”321115″,”view”:”articleBrowser”,”article_id”:”2534229″}

    Click the link above…..

    If you have a problem let us know.

  3. Saloma, I just love your blog. I am not sure if is because it is an extension of your books which I loved or if is because in so many ways I relate to what you write (not the abuse you endured). I also think we have a lot in common. I have always been attracted to the Amish lifestyle but I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith which in many ways is similar to how you describe the Amish faith and yet also different. Both are legalistic and controlling. The Amish appear to have a much closer community not mixed with the world. Even though I find that life attractive it is clear to me that it does not really work to protect us from the world like it does in my imagination. When I finally came to understand the gospel I realized that sin and temptation is everywhere and is in all of us and separating from the world does not protect us from it but I liked the idea of having so many like-minded people close by (I still do). As a Catholic I never was encouraged to read the Bible – in fact it was discouraged. We were taught to listen to the Church and follow what they taught and their traditions. When I finally left the RCC in my mid-thirties (after studying Romans in a Bible study) and went to a reformed Christian Church and I for the first time realized that none of my good works, even obedience to the Bible, would save me or count towards my salvation in any way and that salvation was because of the work of Christ on the cross alone. My mother said many of the same things to me your mother said to you and she always tried to put a guilt trip on me to try to get me to return to the “only true church”. It was very effective and I decided I was going to return to the RCC just until she passed (I would continue to study the Bible) as I felt I had to honor and please her and that was the way to do it. But before I actually did that I heard a sermon on Matt. 10:34-38 that I listened to 3 times and cried my eyes out. I knew even though I was commanded to honor my mother I could not put her above the truth of the gospel of righteousness. Especially vs.37 “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” I had to have nothing to do with the gospel of works that told me the only way I could get to heaven was by good works plus faith in Christ. After listening to that sermon I have never looked back even though I was terribly sad to have disappointed my mom. I also understand some of her feelings more now that I have a son living in sin and far from the Gospel. He is the same son I had a long talk about living the Amish lifestyle when I was talking to him about your 2nd book and he said before I did how much that the Amish lifestyle appeals to him. (When he finally left the church he told me it was because “they are too manipulative”.) Thank you so much for sharing. I have a feeling if we lived close to each other we would be great friends and have a lot to talk about. I am looking forward to your next book. (So sorry for being so long winded.)

    1. Michele, David grew up Catholic, and he and I have had arguments about which is worse — Catholic guilt or Amish guilt. He once said, “Yeah, well the Catholics invented guilt.” I retorted, “Yeah well, the Amish perfected it!”

      Guilt has it’s rightful place. It pricks our conscience when we have done something wrong (or are thinking of doing something wrong). But it can also be used as a tool for manipulation, and that is what both the Catholics and the Amish tend to do with their “errant members.”

      Thanks for sharing your story. I wish your son well. I have a son who also is trying to find his way.

  4. Salome, I enjoy your blogs so much and thay are so helpful. This time I was so reminded of how I would feel about my mother’s letters. Actually she was much better in writing letters to me than relating in person. My mother didn’t always know what to do in a changing world and she could get very overly concerned . I was the oldest child and the first one to do something that she didn’t know how to deal with. Going to a public high school introduced a whole new world to her and even YFC caused her to worry because it didn’t quite fit in with our particular brand of conservative mennonite. I left home quite young for various reasons (school, job, exchange program) and my mother wrote a letter every weel. At a certain point all 4 children were away from home and we all got a hand written letter. Sometimes they would be filled with all kinds of worries which would make me nervous and also about what would be going on at home or church and what the other children would be doing. I have kept all her letters. My Mother passed away suddenly just after her 59th birthday. When I was 59 I came across the letters she had written to me in her last yr of life. I read them again,this time with completely different eyes. Now I had children, now I had some serious concerns over dome things. I had had no mother to turn to when I needed a mother. My mother in law could barely tolerate having me around. I am so glad I kept my mother’s letters. She really honestly cared for children the best way she knew how. I know that I make mistakes as a mother and I am sure that sometimes I can be tiresome but that is just how it is. Thanks again for your thots and ideas.
    gr. Mary M

    1. Mary, thank you for sharing of your story. Isn’t it interesting that you found those letters when you were the age your mother was when she died? That kind of thing is no coincidence.

      I think when Mem allowed her mothering instincts to guide her, she honestly cared for her children to the best of her ability. It’s when she got pulled into being the Amish mother, employing all those guilt tools, that I feel she misplaced her concerns. Nonetheless, I am grateful she was my mother and I love her for who she was.

  5. I so enjoy reading your blogs, Salome. I too, was raised rather strictly, and married “outside” of our church. I am very thankful for my upbringing, and although I did not always appreciate it, I see now how it molded my life for the better.

    Now, from a Mom’s perspective: Writing a letter or voicing an opinion to your adult children, is something you sometimes cannot help but do. Most usually as a warning of something you think they may not see, but could be a huge pitfall, down the road. OR, a deep longing, for the closeness that you are missing? Can it ever be perceived, that you do this because you love them so much, and want to spare them heartache? Or, do you feel that it is always to make one feel guilty, “heap coals of fire” on the them, shame, or to control them to do as you think they should?
    I can see your point, (and it is well taken) but also think that sometimes a Mother cannot help herself, wanting one that they love so much, to realize where Mom is coming from. We all cherish certain aspects of growing up, and some traditions that were chosen for us. Some wonderful, and some NOT so much!
    It is our choice then as adults, to choose our path to follow Christ, in what direction is best for us, and give our parents the benefit of the doubt?!

    1. CJ, you make good points. There are definitely more ways to read Mem’s letters than the one I presented here. And you brought up another thing… I, too, am grateful for my Amish past and for the way it helped shape who I am today — even for the struggles I went through. Because struggles help shape us more than just about anything else.

      I’m also the mother of a son who has put me through my share of heartaches. Perhaps it is because of my relationship with Mem (and through the help of a wise counselor) that I do not presume to know what is best for him, and I check my compulsion to try to fix things in his life. I have learned that when we have a struggle, we usually eventually have a breakthrough. When we do, we experience great joy. My counselor helped me realize that if take away someone’s struggle, we are actually taking away their potential for experiencing joy as well. He claimed it was selfish to want to spare someone from struggle or heartache.

      Granted, this way of thinking is about as far from the Amish way of thinking as one can get, and Mem would not have had this kind of support. In her position as Amish mother, it was an amazing gift for her to share with me her feelings about possibly marrying someone outside the Amish. I should realize that, and not focus on her desire to take it back.

      Thank you, CJ, for your perspective.

  6. Saloma,
    In the past few weeks I have read both “Why I Left the Amish” and “Bonnet Strings” and wanted to thank you for so courageously sharing your story with readers. Having been married to a former cult member for thirty years before his death from cancer I found parallels between your experiences in leaving the Amish and his in breaking free from cult life. It is difficult for outsiders to understand the pull of a life that is so restrictive and exploitative if they have never experienced it themselves. For the first time I was able to understand my husband’s conflict as he adjusted to life outside what he had known as his norm for so many years. Through your eyes I saw that even though his experience in the cult was misguided and manipulated it wasn’t all “bad” and that the very essence of what drew him into that life initially (a sense of family, community, shared purpose, etc.) were what made it so difficult to give up. Your eloquently written story speaks to all who struggle to become authentic in the midst of cultural, familial, and societal mores. Not only did your voice give words to my husband’s struggles you gave voice to mine, a “misfit” who fell outside what my mother viewed as proper for a young woman in her home. Somewhat stubborn, questioning, thirsting for books and education, wanting to make a difference in the world beyond my small town. I commend your courage and vision and honesty.

    1. Cathy, I cannot tell you how much it means to me to hear from readers like you, who have related to my story in ways I could not have anticipated. It is so very gratifying to hear that people derive meaning from the story I’ve told. Thank you. Thank you. And thank you again.

      It is great that you can look at such an experience as your husband had and realize it was “not all bad.” Most people think “cult=bad.” But knowing that your husband had such good reasons for joining is, and to this was also what made breaking free so difficult is important.

      The problem those of us who left the Amish culture have is that there are no words that can really describe our experience. Because we cannot describe it, people who haven’t had the experience have a hard time understanding what it is we experienced. It’s a vicious circle.

      I relate so much to your description of your relationship with your mother! It sounds like you are describing my own experience.

      Thank you for all your kind words. May your kindness come back to you many times over.

  7. Hi Saloma,

    I so enjoy your descriptive writing; you have a beautiful gift. In this part of Mem’s letter: “Oh, Saloma — I’m worrying for fear I didn’t encourage you enough to try and stay as you were. And through that you’ll see or have lots of heartaches. I feel such a failure as a Mother [mother] at times,” I hear Mem as feeling like if you experience heartaches because of your leaving, it is her fault and she failed at being a mother; that she really cares for you. You are very bright…you remind me of our youngest daughter, who is an INTJ personality type in the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type indicator; in fact I’ve wondered if you are that type also, yet you are more empathic than most INTJs. One of the rarest types and very challenging to parent. This type has the tendency to lean on the “thinking” instead of feeling, analyzing situations instead of feeling emotions–I frequently ask our daughter, “How did you feel emotionally?” I’m wondering, in all those memories of the guilt trips that you perceive from Mem, how did/do you feel emotionally about what she did or said? For the healing is in this realm of the emotions, not the thinking. Oh, was it wrong for you to express anger? If so, this would be doubly challenging for you.

    1. Denise thank you for your compliment about my writing. Yes, you are reading that right… Mem really thought she was a failure as a mother because I left. That was the Amish mother in her.

      Yes, I do believe Mem cared for me. But it was a complicated love — I-will-love-you-more-if-you-do-what-I-want-you-to kind of love. I also think that Mem saw in me aspects of herself that she was not happy with — those aspects that don’t fit into the Amish culture very well. It’s as if she could not change these things in herself, but she was bound and determined she was going to change them in me. I think that is partly because she suffered from the desire to be self-determined and so she wanted to spare me. But then again, once I’d left, she still wanted that, so perhaps I am misreading this.

      I am an ENFJ in the Briggs-Meyers. I think I am on the cusp of J-P part of it. I used to be just into the P and last I knew I’m just into the J.

      You are right, the healing is in the emotions. Back when I was going through the most intensive part of my therapy, I cried so many tears, and found my way through so much inner darkness, I often felt like I was going to get lost in those emotions. I kept telling my counselor, “There is no bottom to this,” and she would assure me, “There is a bottom to it, and you will find it.” Eventually I broke through to recognize the light within.

      I have not done the Briggs-Meyers lately. It could be I’m closer to the middle of the scale of the T-F than I used to be… back when David and I were planning to get married, our minister had us go through that process, and I was way far into the F.

      Back then, the perceived guilt trips used to send me into a depression, where I saw an empty abyss within, so big I felt like I was going to fall into it. Now those feelings, like much of my Amish upbringing in general, have receded much more into the background. If anything, I now feel angry when I see how manipulative Mem could be.

      You are right, anger was not okay. Tamping that down used to be sooo hard! I used to get into so much trouble with Mem for voicing my anger in any way. This was the worst as I was going through adolescence. A counselor once told me that underneath all anger is sadness. And sadness is the main emotion I went through for years after leaving.

      Thank you, Denise, for sharing your thoughts.

      1. Thank you for letting me know your MBTI! The ultimate goal in our development is to have balance in all of the “letters”, and, since I wondered if you were an INTJ, it sounds like you are balancing the I and E, and the T and the F. Good work. I still think you have a rare personality :-) Your picture on your book shows that, too.

        1. I also appreciate your openness about your therapy. You have indeed been through a lot. It sounds like a healing when you remember the guilt trips and you don’t go into a depression; that you feel angry instead–especially since you weren’t allowed to feel angry growing up. My therapist taught me that anger is an “umbrella” emotion…there is something underneath it, like your counselor said. For me it is deep hurt. And we need to feel that deep hurt in order to heal. Hard work. And wholeness, as I have learned, is being able to feel whatever we are feeling, without hurting or harming ourselves or another, and be OK with feeling that.

          1. I will be telling the story of my years in therapy in this book, so I will be sharing this with the world… sharing it with people interested is the easy part.

            Anger is an umbrella emotion… interesting. So it could be masking other emotions besides hurt. I hadn’t thought about that before.

            I love that definition of wholeness. Very well stated.

            Thank you for your curiosity for my life stories.

        2. Denise, you are welcome. My life is an open book… quite literally. I am willing to accept all the parts of who I am at this point in my life. It is actually freeing.

          I don’t know about the rare personality… certainly my experiences are rare in mainstream society. Perhaps that is what you are sensing.

  8. thank you for being so open and sharing with us. As I read what others have to say I’m beginning to realize just how many of us struggle with issues that stem from our childhood. We are not alone!! I find such comfort in that. I carry it with me as I sort out the mixed bag of emotions I keep close to my heart. I try to embrace the good and take the rest along because they to shared in molding me into the person I am today. However,it’s putting the bad stuff in the right place and having a healthy perspective of it that’s some times hard to do. It can at times spill into other aspects of my life, especially relationships. I once asked my boys if I did okay as a mom in their growing up years, wanting so badly to not be like my mom. I even went so far as to offer to pay for any therapy they may need! True or not they all said I was a good mom and no therapy was required. It was a good question to ask on Mother’s Day when you need a positive answer!! Ha!!

    1. Pamela, it’s good to hear from you, as always. It is good to know how other people who struggle with these issues cope with them, I agree. There is something comforting in knowing we are not alone.

      What you asked your children and the offer you made is very cool. Yes, a good question to ask on Mother’s Day if you wanted a positive answer. Asking at a different time might have assured you that you were getting an honest answer.

      Thanks for your comments and insights.

      Saloma

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