Why Couldn’t It Have Been Something Useful?

In my childhood home, there needed to be a utilitarian reason for everything I did. When I walked two, three, or five miles on a Sunday morning, it was a means of transportation to a church service. Then on Sunday afternoons it was necessary to walk the same distance to return home. On weekdays I’d sometimes walk to someone’s home to deliver a message for Mem or to pick up or deliver something else. On other occasions, I was allowed to walk to a friend’s house to spend the afternoon. In all of these instances, walking was a means of transportation. Only on Sundays, our day of rest, did we go for walks for the pleasure of it. We also went sledding on Sunday afternoons in winter. Mem sometimes allowed us to go sledding on weekdays, but only after our household chores were completed. She often used the promise of leisure activities as a way to motivate us to get our work done.

Mowing the lawn with a push mower gave us outdoor exercise, as did gardening and carrying water. Lying in the sun to get a tan was unthinkable. If we tanned, it was because we were working in the sun.

Any creativity I had was turned into homespun arts, such as braiding rugs, quilting, crocheting, or embroidering. This kind of creativity was considered “useful.” Even so, I was only allowed to do handwork once my household chores were done because it was considered leisure.

Mem was not the only one. This was an Amish way of thinking.

I love to tell Aunt Martha stories. I’ll tell a few here that demonstrate what I mean by the Amish mindset about being useful.

Aunt Martha at a granddaughter’s wedding

Aunt Martha looks a lot like Mem used to. She is ten years younger than Mem was, but her mannerisms, her inflections, and her body language are so much like Mem’s it’s uncanny. She left the Amish to become Mennonite sixty-some years ago. She married a widower with six daughters when she was eighteen years old and gave birth to nine children after that. Two of those children were born with genetic handicaps. Steven is still alive and is in his mid-fifties. When he was young he developed the ability to remember people’s birthdays, and he could tell them what day of the week their next birthday would fall on.

Martha has been quoted as saying about Steven’s gift, “Why couldn’t it have been something useful?” Her emphasis fell on the first syllable in the word “useful.”

Steven with his cousin, the bride and the groom at the same wedding

Steven and Martha have a close relationship. Martha loves Steven for exactly who he is, and Steven is always looking out for the well-being of his mother. One day, when one of Martha’s daughters was about to tell a story about her, Steven became anxious. He kept repeating, “Don’t say anything bad about Mom, don’t say anything bad about Mom.”

Martha said, “Steven, it’s okay.” He calmed down right away.

So Martha’s daughter told the story of the day her mother was standing on a little stool, bending over to clean out a chest freezer. She fell in, headfirst, with her legs sticking up over the edge of the freezer. Two of her daughters came over to haul her out of there and Martha said, “No! While I’m down here, let me clean it out!”

How is that for utilitarian? Martha may have left the Amish, but the Amish mindset didn’t leave her.

After the first time I left the Amish, and I was living back in my home community, I visited a friend in Vermont. She and I went jogging together several times. When I returned home, I went jogging as a way of preventing weight gain. It was reported to me that a neighbor woman (who was also the deacon’s wife) saw me running up the road one day while she was working in her garden. “Here I was toiling in my garden in the hot sun, and there she was running up the hill.” In other words, I was making work for myself without a purpose to it, while she was struggling to put food on the table.

The bishop apparently said about my jogging, “It seems if she wants to lose weight, she could go out and work in the garden or something.”

I caved under the pressure from the community. I stopped jogging.

I have been observing my thought patterns lately. I still fight the idea that it is more useful to crochet rugs than it is to write, even though I have a pile of rugs that I don’t know what to do with and I want to finish my book.

Recent rug

I don’t go for regular walks, because my car gets me to where I’m going. I don’t get myself a gym membership because I’d rather use that energy to clean my house, hang my clothes out on the line, shovel snow in the wintertime, or mow the lawn in the summertime.

I like to think that I have chosen my lifestyle. But I realize that so far I’ve allowed the utilitarian way of thinking that I developed in my young life to hinder a lifestyle that includes a healthy amount of exercise. It is time for me to clean up and tune up my bicycle this summer and to walk regularly, even if it is just around the neighborhood.

I’ve made one healthy change. I’ve freed myself from my compulsion to crochet more rugs (at least for now) and I’m in full swing with my writing. It feels good to have this as my main focus again.

I’m sure there are many other instances in which the Amish ways of thinking have imprinted themselves on my brain, in my cellular structure, and formed my habits. For now, it’s enough to recognize this one. Seeing my shortcomings is one thing. Doing something about them is much more difficult. My aim is to take one walk — or one bike ride — at a time.

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26 thoughts on “Why Couldn’t It Have Been Something Useful?”

  1. I had to laugh at Martha’s statement about cleaning out the freezer! I did the same thing. I’m short and can’t reach the bottom of our big chest freezer, so I took a stool and stood on it. I still couldn’t reach the bottom of the freezer so just kept sliding in (head first) until my hands could reach the bottom! I had to pull myself out!! I hate that job – it’s TOO COLD!! We still get frost in our freezer – it’s 20 yrs. old.

    We have 80 acres. although 60 acres are rented out pasture land, my husband cut a path through a section for me. That is my solitude to walk that path and perhaps run across a deer, an armadillo or even a skunk. I take our one dog with me – she needs the exercise also. Sometimes I’ll take another one of the dogs along and watch the frogs jump into the pond with wild chirps as the dogs circle the pond or swim across. I’m observant – if I DON’T hear any birds chirping. That could mean that something is around e.g. coyote or fox. My son even saw a bobcat – so I’m always vigilant. The renters of our property have cattle and there is electric wire sectioning off pieces of land. Before we rented it out and had our own cattle, I made a point of walking the perimeter of the 80 acres every day and could do it in about 20-25 minutes if I really moved and didn’t play around walking around each pond and watching the Mallard ducks or Egrets that were visiting. Totally enjoyable and relaxing (while burning a calorie or two).

    1. Kris, that is funny that you had the same thing happen while cleaning out your chest freezer… hehe.

      Your walks sound really nice. We have nice farmland behind us, and we’ve walked down to the stream in the back, but we don’t go through the pasture where the cattle are grazing because we don’t know if there is a bull among them.

      I’d totally play around watching the Mallard ducks and Egrets. And I LOVE seeing Kingfishers. I’ve seen one two Sunday mornings in a row on the way to church. It’s much more fun to be around when they’re diving for food, but I take a glimpse of a kingfisher whenever I can get one.

      Bobcats… wow. David and I are almost certain we saw a catamount in Vermont once. It was crossing the road in front of us. It was fast, it was big, and it was wild! We saw the shape of it close enough that David hit the brakes. Then we looked at one another and said, “What was THAT!?”

      Thank you for taking us on one of your walks. I enjoyed it!

  2. I remember that mindset, Saloma, but I can’t say that I was ever over-worked. My mother worked far harder than she would have needed to, if she had learned to delegate or had the patience to teach a youngster. As a result, as long as the older sisters were still home I spent a lot of time outdoors on horseback in the back meadows and woods. On the other hand, I fully absorbed the Amish view that laziness was close to the ultimate sin.

    Here is a song I wrote about my Mom:

    Golden Rocking Chair
    Elva Bontrager 1999
    Mama worked so hard all the days of her life
    From sunrise to sundown as mother and wife
    And many a nighttime she spent on our care
    But I know she is resting up there
    I dreamed I saw Mama rocking in a golden rocking chair.

    Mama built the fire at the crack of each dawn
    And never stopped working ’til daylight was gone
    When kids cried in the nighttime she always was there
    But at last Mama hasn’t a care
    I dreamed I saw Mama rocking in a golden rocking chair

    Now the years have gone by and I in my turn
    Am facing my end time, what rest I have earned
    I believe there is nothing my Mama won’t share
    And I know that I’ll find her up there
    So I’ll join my Mama rocking in a golden rocking chair

    Rocking chair. Rocking chair
    Didn’t know there’d be a rocking chair
    But I know that I’ll find it up there
    I dreamed I saw Mama rocking in a golden rocking chair

    1. Elva, that is a beautiful song. I wish I could hear it being sung. Is it on You Tube by any chance?

      I am grateful that I learned all the things I did from Mem. That is the good side of her delegating many tasks to her daughters.

      Thank you, as always, for your comments. Thank you also for the song.

  3. I love this, Saloma. Far from being Amish, my dad was an army man and everything had to be done for a good reason. When dad was around my brothers and i would warn each other that he was coming our way. We hid the crayons, the books we were reading, or whatever useless things we were doing and started looking busy. If we didn’t look busy enough he’d give us something more important to do, like sweeping out the garage or washing windows.

    Thank goodness I didn’t Bring that into my life as an adult, but on occasion I can still feel guilty when I simply sit and Watch the bird at the feeder or leaf through a magazine.

    The story of Aunt Martha and the freezer gave me the giggles. She looks like is warm And loving Woman.

    I’m glad you’re back to writing and hope that you will take time to simply stare into space, go for long leisurely walks, and enjoy every moment.

    1. Thank you, Joan, for your thoughts. It sounds like your father was a bit like my paternal grandmother. She could not stand to see children playing, especially once they were “old enough” to work. That was pretty much when we were out of diapers as far as she was concerned. At least Mem allowed us some leisure time.

      Oh, I love watching the bird feeder. Having breakfast followed by a cup of tea in the morning is when I love to watch them. And then I look out over the field to the south of us to see what other wildlife is out there. David has seen two red foxes sunning themselves in the field back there. And we see deer. For large birds we see great blue herons, northern harriers, redtail hawks, kestrels, and of course crows, ravens, and vultures. We’ve not been getting the variety of birds at the feeder that we did in Harrisonburg. We’re too far out in the country for cardinals, for instance. They’re a people bird. We’ve been getting lots of white-crowned sparrows and finches and of course mourning doves.

      Yes, time for daydreaming is important, as is taking walks. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. Kathleen Stewart

    Enjoying your blog. Thank you. I am conservative Anabaptist but not with a group. I would be with the Amish Mennonites if I could.

  5. I love this blog!! Made me laugh out loud. Your Aunt Martha is too cute. What a great face. Though my family is not Amish, because of their more conservative religious beliefs they had the mind set not far from the Amish ways. As I have said before, idle hands were considered the “devil’s” workshop. The importance of hard work was stressed quite often in our house and within the extended family. I learned good work ethics because of it, but it also has caused me to have feelings of guilt over the years about wanting to take time for me or spend some time doing nothing at all. Even at 58 with ongoing health issues that cause me to tire easily I still push myself to do more. Which drives my poor husband crazy with worry. Life is too short to deny oneself the simple pleasures of said life. Some where, some how, you have to find a happy medium. I think your finding it Saloma. I continue to try. By the way, love the colors in this new rug!!! Is it for sale!!!!!! Did you name it??

    1. Pamela, thank you for your thoughts. I know, isn’t that a great story about the freezer I have lots more stories Aunt Martha stories where these came from.

      I’m hearing from my readers that this prevailing belief about idle hands doesn’t just come from the Amish. Fascinating.

      I hope you find a happy medium. I can only imagine why your husband worries… I would too.

      Glad you like the rug. I hadn’t named this one. What do you think of “Earth and Fire.” Yes, it is for sale. Email me if you’re interested in buying it. I hope to post lots more on my website soon.

      Best wishes to you, Pamela.

  6. I always look forward to the next article and once again it was very special. My mother who was raised Amish was a perfect example of what you are talking about. I have never seen anyone who could get so much done. Every movement counted. She was quick and effecient. My sister was also just like this. I however am more laid back, I don’t work as fast and yet by the end of the day I have managed to get a lot done. My “slowness” would get on my mother’s nerves so she would usually have my sister help her. I ended up doing chores outside. My job was feeding the pigs and throwing down the silage out of the silo for feeding the cows. I fell down the silo shute and badly sprained both ankles and my back was sore quite awhile and now at age 75 I have a lot of trouble with my lower back. The main thing about this story is that my mother never complained. She loved what she did. She would set a beautiful table, her garden were lovely to see, everything she did was an expression of being creative in the process. My sister is the same way. I am still “slow” but I do try to be creative no matter what it is that I am working with and I can thank my mother for this.

    1. Mary, somehow I missed responding to your comment until now. I love your description of your mother. So glad you work in the same spirit as she did.

      Wow, you fell down the silage chute… that must have been quite the fall. I’m sorry to hear about your lower back pain.

      I was talking with three women at a church gathering the other day who all knew you… Gloria Diener, her sister-in-law, Pat, and Vi Dutcher. We had a lovely conversation about you. What a small world!

      1. Hallo Saloma, I am so happy you were able to talk to Gloria, Pat and Vi. Gloria’s family was a very special family for me and the father was one of the ministers in our church. For 1 1/2 I would ride with the family to a small mission church which was about 1 hr away where I was one of the SS teachers. Pat and her husband are neighbors from my brother. Vi is the mother of one of the girls who lived here in Holland for a yr. She lived across the street. All 3 of these ladies are very special and I love them a lot.

  7. Hi Saloma,
    I am very happy that you you are in full swing in your writing. Pleasure or leisure both are much needed to stay alive. The utilitarian way is good when we can breathe through it and love whatever we are doing.
    As you talked about bi-cycle it reminds me that I also need to clean it up for summer. After long day when my back wants the bed and my heart wants to read , I just go to bed with the book and it gives me the immense pleasure of reading book as well as the complete mental relaxation.
    Saloma I love your thought process and waiting to see more writing from you.
    I should say the above handmade rug is so nice and its totally different from the other rugs in pattern wise.
    Stay happy healthy and safe.

    1. Sonia, thank you for your comments. I like your thoughts about loving what we’re doing, even if it is utilitarian. I also wish I could read in bed. My husband likes to have lights off when he sleeps, and he usually goes to bed before me.

      I appreciate your kind comments about my writing. I love doing it, and it helps to have good readers… thank you.

      Thank you for the compliments on the rug. I will be posting more some time soon…

      1. Saloma..hope you are doing great!
        How is Shenandoah Valley now…is the spring almost there ? I went to Shenandoah National Park on 2014. But that was a really short trip and we always think to visit Shenandoah again. But this time if we plan to go there I would love to meet you. If you give that permission. Its something different when you meet an author who has given pleasure of mind through her writing.
        When we will plan for it I will let you know.
        Stay blessed and happy always!

  8. I recently came across your memoir while looking for ones similar to mine. You were at Smith the same time I was at the sister college, Mount Holyoke (2004 to 2007). We may have even been in the same Open House or meeting for those accepted (I also applied and got accepted to Smith). You left the Amish. I left a cloistered monastery after 29 years (I was 16 when I entered). I found many things in your memoir that resonated with my experience. My memoir is more about the struggle to adapt and recover from the emotional abuse I suffered (I am a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in trauma) and was unaware of until I took graduate courses in psychotherapy. I write to thank you for sharing your story. I believe it helps make the world a better place when we speak up and not hide our voice. Amy Gracey Nash

    1. Amy, I am so glad to “meet” you. Have you published your memoir? I looked for it on Amazon and didn’t see it. If you are in the process of writing and publishing, I wish you all the best. I look forward to reading it! You’re welcome for sharing my story. It is readers like yourself who give back to me what I put out there. Love your emphasis on empathy in your practice. Many blessings to you!

      1. Thanks Saloma. The book is written, I am in the process of finding an agent. Hopefully, by 2020 I will have it published! Again, thank you for the courage to write your book. I find many souls who struggle and don’t realize there are others out there who identify with them. I’m recommending your book to many of my clients! Amy

  9. Phyllis Myers

    Are you presenting at Elizabethtown College’s June Health & Well-Being In Amish Society Conference? It would be AMAZING to meet you! I called after first leaving (my husband had just died) and you told me “Butterflies should be free.” Have a butterfly above my desK as a reminder. I’m presenting Friday morning.

    1. Hello Phyllis. At long last, I’m responding to your question. Yes, I will be presenting at the Young Center in June. I look forward to meeting you too! I’m presenting on Friday afternoon. I’ll see you there in June!

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