Thursday, May 11, 2006

as a term ends i find myself reflecting not on the students or their grades - water under the bridge - but the fact that again they showed interest in various interesting topics, and i led them directly to study, among many - the amish. reminded me of my days in the english river valley - wellman, specifically, a beautiful part of iowa, washington county, back roads going past shiloh and around kalona, where one day a guy gave me my first banjo, and taught me to play it on a wooden bridge over the english river. a couple of guys came by in a horse-and-buggy and spoke to us rather deliberately, even played the banjo for a minute. a rare exchange between the english and the amish.

as i drove by a house with a pink porch, stretching my neck to catch sight of the marriable girl who supposedly lived there, i of course fantasized about being let into the community, enjoying fine homemade food and living happily without television, city angst and pollution. We got our milk from an amish guy up on the hill who was childless and watching my pregnant friend Paige rather closely. the english and amish were actually quite divided and friendships like that of paige and the dairy farmer were somewhat rare, as were occasions like the banjo-picking on the bridge. rural iowa weather was dramatic- blizzards, clean harsh icy roads, bright sun, huge drifts, backdrops for bright orange triangles on shiny black buggies, going very slowly, iron wheels in mud ruts and slush, but sliding differently, more slowly, on the ice...i almost hit a buggy once, my car, with paige in it, landing in a huge snowdrift beside the ice-glazed gravel road. the nearby house didn't have a phone. the gardens were buried in snow; the pink porch was in the other direction, the west wind cutting under my jacket. i felt bad, sinful for even having a car, much less being unable to control it, but everyone was ok, especially paige, who was one tough person, the father of her baby having taken too many drugs and jumped into the english river, and her getting by with help and a ride to town now and then.

years later i encounter some things written about the amish, and my students, many of them saudis from a bedouin tradition, are fascinated with a rejection of modern technology, a country orientation, a cult-like clinging to religious principles. we encounter a story about a woman who has turned bitter, her third, fourth and fifth child having a kind of autism, and the local amish talking about 'god's will' as if god rains down genetic problems on the amish as punishment for thinking outside of the fold - but no, she said, it's because i married my distant cousin, which is common in this community but dangerous nonetheless, and i'll take my kids to the doctor if i have to borrow a car to do it; this last act of defiance getting her evicted from the amish community. the woman she's with agrees, and says that we aren't meant to be closed off from other people, to shun the outside's a fault of an otherwise very good people = people who take care of their land, grow stunning flowers, work hard, help each other, live good lives. shunning the modern world- where do you see that in the bible?

the students, many of whom have nice cars and an occasional weekend on their hands, will probably visit arthur- illinois' home of the amish, maybe a few hundred miles up the road, a restaurant stop on the way to champaign & chicago. why not? they're kids, like i was, looking at different lifestyles, surprised, maybe, that all americans haven't gone for the same ball of wax. i think of the wooden bridge near paige's house- and the banjo encounter. it turns out that groups of amish divide themselves over issues like lace curtains which, if you are modern, so to speak, you accept, and if you are traditional, you don't. the outsider doesn't see the subtlety when every house is without even a telephone pole. but one's eyes get adjusted to subtlety. and, the banjo and instruments in general turn out to be one of those things like lace curtains- those boys were making a point in their community- by accepting and even trying out the banjo- that was perfectly clear to members of their own community - who could probably see them miles off from one of those little houses with lace curtains. a couple of english on the bridge playing a banjo. a clear iowa fall day now, orange leaves in the woods, clear skies in the west, the english river below gurgling its secrets. it's not so much shunning the world, as choosing the things you adjust your eyes to, the pace you use to process it, the wheels you clack on the wooden slats of the bridge. nice meeting you, my friends...say hello to the guy up the top of the hill.


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