Practicing with Children

Listening to Our Children: How my daughter’s obsession with the Amish changed my life (and how as a bonus I learned to milk a cow, survive without electricity, and brave an outhouse)

amish jill kids rainbow

One winter morning two years ago, I was rushing my children down the Kansas City Union Station steps to see a children’s play.  As I was scurrying them along, Amélie caught a glimpse of about forty people, presumably Amish, who were gathered around, waiting for a train.

“Who are those people,” she asked?

“I think they are Amish, “ I answered, shooing them towards the theater entrance.

When we got home from the play she was full of questions:

Why do they dress like that?  Why were they taking the train?  Who are they?

I had gone through my own Amish obsession in Junior High (I visited an Amish community with my mom, my best friend, and her mom.  There was this boy in suspenders working on a roof….  I thought that perhaps I could become Amish, too).  I did not really know that much, though, about their culture.  So, Amélie and I checked out books from the library, we watched documentaries,  we searched for an Amish penpal (a little complicated, these days, in an era of electronic communication).  I remembered that the year before, when I had gone to a food expo with tables upon tables of farmers offering their food, their eggs, their meat, and their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscriptions,  that I had seen a family who looked Amish.  I knew they had a CSA, because I had picked up their brochure.  Maybe we could subscribe to their CSA?  Maybe they would have a little girl Amélie’s age who could be her penpal?  Maybe?

We signed up for their CSA, and in June we, along with other CSA subscribers, visited their farm.  There, we learned  that the family we were visiting are not Amish—they are Old German Baptist.  They share a similar Anabaptist history, but they originated a bit later than their Amish counterparts.  Contrary to the Amish, they do not know Pennsylvania Dutch, nor do they have a problem with wearing buttons on their clothes.  They do not allow their youth the period of Rumspringa.  Other than that, their lives pretty much mirror the lives of the Amish and Old Order Mennonites—no electricity, horse-powered farms, buggies, plain dress, deep spiritual devotion, and simple—although certainly not uncomplicated—lives.

amish coats and hats

During the visit, Matt hit it off with the father.  I slipped into easy conversation with the mother.  Amélie disappeared with a daughter just about her age.  Jack was soon playing with their young sons.  We stayed later than any other family that day.  We exchanged addresses.  We wrote letters.  Over the months we struggled through cultural and religious differences.

In the past two years that we have known them, they have taught us much.

Practically speaking, when those brave souls entrusted their farm to us for six days last year while they were away, they taught us a level of simple living and farm-competence we didn’t know resided within these citified souls.  We milked a cow.  We gathered eggs.  We fed the chickens, the cow, the donkey, the horses.  We used an outhouse.  We ate dinner by the light of a kerosene lamp.  We boiled run-off rain water for baths (OK, one bath).  We picked vegetables for our dinner and bore the grave responsibility of their livelihood as we looked after their fledgling plants.  We fell asleep to the croaking of bullfrogs and the howl of coyotes.

amish amelie jill picking produce

(We also sneaked into town a couple of times for dinner, felt intimidated by the hens as we stole the eggs right out from under them,  kept a bag of gas station ice in the ice house, and sipped something a little harder than water on their porch swing in the evening).

They taught us more, though, than the practicalities of farm life.

They have taught us grace.
When I accidentally forgot to remove turquoise nail polish from my toes and showed up with blue toes at a wedding, no one treated me less graciously.  They worried, instead, about my toes, because it was cold.

They have taught us humility.
They work hard and have little.  They wear no name-brand clothes.  They don’t drive a fancy car (or any car).  The only decoration in their house might be a vase of flowers gathered from the yard.  Yet we, who have so much, always leave their home brimming with happiness and peace, and our arms are usually loaded down with greens or tomatoes or eggs.  Sometimes, we even leave with a new dress for Amélie.

amish amelie dress

They have taught us faith.
They love God.  Their faith is deep.  They have nothing, really, yet they work and worship with a joy and a peace that I observe with heartsick longing.  Their relationship with God is earnest, genuine, and sweet.

They have also taught me an unexpected lesson: that of the importance of listening to–and acting upon—the interests of my children.  This does not come easy for me.  Sad to say, I often have an agenda:

I have a graduate degree in English: You have no choice.  You must love reading.

I have a nutty health obsession: What do you mean—you don’t like this green smoothie???

I am a slave to my to-do list:  Can’t we just stay in today so I can check things off this list?

But had I not listened to Amélie, had I not noticed and allowed her to foster that interest, what joy, what friendship, what a life we would have missed out on experiencing.

amish amelie horse

Amélie was passionate in her obsession with the lives of plain people.  I sat on my couch and learned along with her.

She was dogged in her determination to create a relationship with a little girl from this wildly different culture.  I was nervous and intimidated by these people who were so different than I, yet I clung to the coattails of her courage and fell in love with a new family and a new way of life.

Were it not for Amélie, I would not know that I could milk a cow, that I could survive six days without electricity, that I could step into a foreign kitchen and create meals from the produce in the fields and the canned food in the cellar.  I wouldn’t have fallen asleep to the sound of coyotes and woken up to the call of birds.  I certainly wouldn’t have volunteered to use an outhouse for nearly a week.  My faith would not have been turned on its head, my frantic way of life would not have been challenged.  We would not be actively looking for a house with land so that we can have our own chickens and goats and open spaces (albeit with hot water and a fully functional, indoor bathroom).

amish cookstove

Yes, I know we can’t follow every whim of our children’s. If I did, we would live in a house made entirely of Legos, and ice cream would be our main course at every meal.  But I truly believe that God used my little girl and that ten-second glimpse in Union Station to tug our family closer together, to widen our hearts to a lovely people, and to root our faiths a little deeper.

Listen to your children today.  They see what our to-do lists blind us from seeing.  They see possibilities as vast as an open sky, as exciting as a buggy ride, as stinky as an outhouse.  While of course we are called to lead our children, sometimes it’s best to take their hand and let them lead us.  Who knows, you might find yourself digging a garden, clasping the hand of a new friend, or even dodging wasps in an outhouse.

Jill Clingan

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