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 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 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.
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.