I stood like a marble statue, reverential and composed when that Amish horse and buggy came within inches of me. The driver, passengers, and even the horse glided past me unfazed, as if floating on air. Now, moments later, and alone on this rural road, there’s an even greater serenity in me. My mood mirrors the tranquil violet-blue sky darkening overhead. I hear the robin’s last calls echo through the field, summoning all to return to the nest. There’s magic in the air and I, too, will heed their call. However, I will leave my car behind and walk the five miles home as tonight I have much to contemplate. I will not stride along to my compulsive childhood walking game. Instead, with each buoyant step I take, I will focus, clearheaded, on my supposed Amish life come full circle.
I begin my walk home by first stopping at the top of the ridge. As I stand ready, I feel a chilly breeze pass over me as goosebumps form on my arms. I shiver, yet feel warm as a powerful recollection from decades ago rises like a balloon bursting anew as I begin my trek.
I was sixteen. Class had just finished and Warren, an exchange student from England, harassed me for coming from “that” neighborhood. To add insult to injury, he declared it with his charming English accent in full on-stage mode. It should have rolled off me. Except he punched in with the kicker. Mocking. Your neighborhood looks to be an uninspiring, dreadful place to live. And to top it off, he said he felt pity for me. Everyone within earshot laughed.
I could still hear snickering laughter ringing in my ears. Despite it being a freezing winter day, I skipped the bus and headed home on foot. I didn’t want to face the other kids that witnessed Warren’s performance. As I walked toward home, there was an icy, biting wind gusting on my face, yet in contrast, I felt blazing hot as I sauntered through the freshly fallen snow. I grasped a handful of snow and formed a ball, cradling it against my cheeks. It felt settling. Hurling the snowball against a stop sign, I shuffled across the street, cutting through a vacant lot toward my neighborhood. Meanwhile, my brusque walking pace followed the rhythm of a childhood nursery rhyme. Mary had a little lamb. Yup. It’s silly and perhaps peculiar for a sixteen-year-old, but I’ve played that walking game since I was a child, and I had no intention of stopping it, especially on that day. It emboldens me to step swiftly, enabling me to zone out from thinking altogether. I repeat verses from the rhyme over and over in my head, striding faster and faster to calm myself. I still do it today.
I hesitated a block from my house, examining my neighborhood. Built after WWII for lower-income families, it enabled my family and many others who otherwise could not afford it to own a home. I looked up and down the rows of tiny tract houses, noting that they all looked alike. The same front door, windows and design. Perhaps they are not very inspiring. Despite all of this, I never gave it a second thought until Warren’s performance.
While I tried hard to forget Warren’s remark and the ensuing laughter, I paced faster. Reciting under my breath. Mary had a little lamb… little lamb… little… I reached our driveway, stopped and breathed in. The comforting sweet aroma of tomato sauce cooking emanated from my house, wafting toward me, enveloping me in its soothing scent. I dashed through the attached garage and entered the kitchen. As always, jazz played on the radio. Dad’s favorite jazz musician, Thelonious Monk, greeted me. I walked over to the stove and lifted the lid of the simmering pot and inhaled. Ahhh, just what I needed. I called out. Mom?... Dad? Where is everyone? Mom appeared as if by magic. How was your after-school class? Did anything interesting happen? Her innocent questions set me off sobbing and Dad wandered in.
As I relayed the incident, my father, who has always been a bit of a philosopher, hugged me close. He whispered. It’s not the house that makes one happy, it’s the family within it. No one needs things. He reiterated his lifelong mantra. Minimalism is best and remember, you only need what you can carry. The monks and Amish have that right. Frustrated, as tears filled my eyes, I retorted. I forgot about the monks, and I especially forgot about the Amish. Dad and Mom circled me in a group hug. Dad smiled and spoke with a matter-of-fact comeback. Henceforth, never forget the Amish. I felt a respite.
A moment later, my older brother waltzed through the door as per his usual. My younger sister and brother followed close behind. They all chimed in unison. We’re starved! Mom giggled in her ever-girlish way. Dad broadcast his customary good-humored dinner time decree. Come on vultures. He who’s first is last! My siblings and I scurried around the dinner table, competing to be the last one to sit down. Mom’s eyes glistened as she winked at me. It filled me with a heartening warmth. I thanked the monks and the Amish, as I recognized at that very moment our little house was indeed our castle, as my parents often proclaimed.
Unaware back then, I now know that was the beginning of my supposed Amish life.
One year after that infamous day, I started art school in Philadelphia. To save money, and because my parents required me to be eighteen before I moved into the dorm, I lived with my elderly aunt and uncle, Rose and Jack, in their small one-bedroom apartment outside the Philadelphia city limits. Their neighborhood was just beyond the gritty industrial area of the city, near Holmesburg prison. I slept on a small pullout sofa in their compact living room. Cramped quarters, but we all made the best of it.
As I continue walking home, a strong whiff of diesel from a passing truck disrupts my memory for a brief second. It’s curious how a smell can take one back in time.
Diesel reminds me of the Philadelphia commuter train I’d take back and forth to school when I lived with Aunt Rose and Uncle Jack. When the train pulled out of the station, the pungent odor of diesel fuel coupled with burning train brakes further intensified the chaotic landscape of asphalt rooftops, row homes and electrical wires. I’d often daydream as the train rocked me back and forth. On Wednesday, I’d know Aunt Rose would place the tray of tater tots and meatloaf in the oven. Uncle Jack would arrive in expectation and make his usual cheery broadcast, smiling ear to ear. It’s diner-dinner night! Tricksy, the tabby cat, would leap onto my lap as Beau, the one-eyed miniature poodle, would hump my leg. We’d all laugh at the absurdity, and after supper, I’d take Beau for his nighttime stroll along the steely street and give Rose and Jack time alone. And as always, I’d step along to the calming cadence of my rhyming game. Eventually, I’d find my mind drifting. And when I’d return to their apartment, in between wishes, I’d feel as though I was sitting on the highest seat of a broken Ferris wheel. Looking out over the world below. Paused. Dangling. Waiting to make my way down.
Just over a month into that semester, one of my art school classmates learned of my commute and persuaded me to stay with her whenever I wanted. She had her own apartment. All things considered, I needed no encouragement and took her up on her offer. Her name was Audrey. She was from an affluent family in the exclusive Philadelphia mainline suburb Bryn Mawr. Tall and slender, with dark red hair cut short and styled in a glamorous twenties-look, Audrey made a grand statement in her elegant designer clothes and red lipstick. She always looked flawlessly put together. We must look like an improbable match, I speculated. It’s not that I was not attractive or fashionable. Rather, I shopped in thrift stores and had a style of my own, 19th Century, with a twist.
Audrey was generous, and we enjoyed each other’s company. We were the Yin and Yang of friendships from our presence to our backgrounds. I was perplexed that my other classmates kept their distance, some remarking they thought Audrey wasn’t friendly and too secretive. Despite their comments, I noticed nothing untoward. Rather attracted to the quirky, perhaps darker side of life, it’s doubtful I’d perceive anything problematic. Also, we were on the same wavelength and discussed our both being drawn to the melancholy elements in art, music, and poetry because of our exposure to Catholicism growing up. Surrounded by statues and images of suffering, crucifixion and death as children, we concluded that likely had a peculiar effect on us.
Before long, I added Junior to Audrey’s name (to myself). In particular, because she reminded me of the carnivorous plant Audrey Junior in a cult film I liked from the sixties. The one in which Jack Nicholson made his debut. Besides, her new name fit since she disposed of people and boyfriends at the drop of a hat.
Over time, Audrey Junior became distracted by her ongoing love life and multiple breakups. She skipped lectures, studio time, and engaged in bizarre behaviors. Namely, she was pretending to be a junkie. Audrey would stick needles into the inner bend of her arms, the area where one would shoot up drugs which created punctures that bled and bruised, resembling track marks. When I first observed her doing this, I was worried but fascinated in a macabre way. Audrey assured me, “I don’t want to become a junkie, I just want to look like one.”
I wanted to believe Audrey was okay and remember asking myself if I was naïve. Were those track lines on her arms real? Later I found out the answer. Devastated, I learned Audrey was using heroin. She left school after a tragic suicide attempt. Distraught, I reached out to her, but her parents told me to never contact her, as they didn’t think former associations were healthy for her. I never saw Audrey again.
At the end of the road, I sit on a stone wall. It’s quiet except for the rustling of something in the nearby bushes. I look up and gaze into the ghostly clouds hanging against the slate sky. There is an ominous feeling of sadness gripping me as I think about Audrey. I’ve often wondered what happened to her and hoped she was okay. I used to imagine her living in one of those massive stone mansions, part of a vast estate on the mainline of Philly, where she grew up, much like the character played by Audrey Hepburn in the film, The Philadelphia Story, whimsical, dreamy, elegant and rich. That is still my hope for her.
I gather my thoughts and pick up the pace.
After Audrey left school, I heard rumors about me. No, not what you’d expect. I didn’t mind these rumors, as they seemed preordained. One morning after an art history lecture, my professor, Ms. Stewart, asked me if I would stay behind. She directed me. Sit down. Tell me about your life in the Amish community. Did you leave or are you temporarily away? Even though I learned the rumor of my supposed Amish life before, her bold questions stunned me. Her manner was callous and forthright. I did not dispel the assertion. Instead, I owned it, finding the suggestion both charming and mysterious. I thought to myself. Me, Amish. I approve. I excused myself and left the room without responding.
I assumed Audrey had started the rumor because she often remarked on my style. Her fake English accent would emerge and she’d announce, “Darling, you look like a vintage photo of someone reincarnated from the past.”
I slow my stride feeling uplifted, realizing that Audrey indeed played a significant role in my supposed Amish life.
I had limited knowledge of the Amish back then, except for my father’s pronouncement, and I decided research was long overdue. Many Amish live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and I went there to observe them for myself. I never associated my costume-of-the-day with the Amish, but I soon learned that the rumor made sense because I resembled what Amish women wear. I wore similar long skirts, shirts with lace collars, ankle boots, and long hair tied up. Plus, many may have found most of my clothes odd. Notably, my thrift-store long, black priest’s habit doubtless turned heads.
While observing the Amish community, I fell in love with the lush, colorful landscape that surrounded them in contrast with their black and white Amish world. Rows of zig-zagging clothes lines teaming with garments of every size amid stark black silhouettes of horse, buggy, and driver enthralled me. I became fascinated with them. Their disciplined focus and drive to keep their community separate amidst the busy encroachment of development inspired me, then and now.
The humid air smells like rain as I stop to gaze up into the sky. A few remaining clouds glow against the dusty grey background. Hundreds of fireflies are illuminating the dark woods. I’m convinced a celebration is unfolding as I drift back into my memories.
A few years after finishing art school, I became involved in the Philly punk scene. I cut my hair, dyed it magenta pink, and spiked it high. The first person I met was a guy named Lafayette. It’s an understatement to say Lafayette had an impressive presence. He stood at least 6 feet 4 inches tall, was as skinny as a rail, and his fantastic double mohawk dyed black and white added six inches to his height. Straightaway we became friends, and it turned out he was Amish, close to finishing Rumspringa, his year away. It floored me! Amish. For real. Wow! He’s on a sabbatical, I thought. Meeting Lafayette sustained my belief in destiny.
I stop walking and stand on the last hill before my farmhouse. The air, now crisp and cooler, feels fresh and I’m invigorated. I think back to my father’s lifelong mantra of living a contented “less is more” life and know my life is further inspired whenever I observe the Amish community near my home. Yes. Destiny. The Amish are now my neighbors.
After twenty years of living in Philadelphia, I was desperate to find a lifestyle that matched my desire for autonomy, clean air, fresh water and nature. I left the city and became what I refer to as an ex-city dweller, gone feral after moving back to upstate New York, where I grew up. Many Amish also moved from Pennsylvania to these idyllic rural lands where I live.
I’m continually fascinated by the Amish lifestyle and traditions as they live a historic minimalist lifestyle. For instance, when they gain a non-Amish building, the first thing they’ll do is remove all modern amenities, like electrical wiring. Their close-knit community endures through hard work and religious discipline as they nurture life’s most precious entity, family. I recall Lafayette revealing how he missed his family and would soon move back after his year away. It is the only point he shared about his Amish life with me. Whenever I think of him, I wonder if he too moved to upstate New York. It’s fun to consider that Lafayette might be my neighbor.
I stop walking as a brief shower pours down on me. I run and take cover under an enormous maple tree. The extreme variations in weather in this part of New York State are an added plus for a photographer like me. The rain stops and I carry onward.
Today the weather has been in full bipolar swing. It started earlier this afternoon. I darted outside to study the clouds as they predict much. They looked like unfurled satin blowing in the wind as they danced above me, billowy and abstract like oil paint dabbled across a creamy velvet sky. I knew the sunset would later be spectacular.
With that in mind, I jumped into my car and set off to take photographs, passing one of the large Amish farms en route. In the meadow I saw two draft horses pulling a hay-cutting device as an Amish woman and man stood on top, one directing the cutter, the other driving the horses. Two young Amish boys in straw hats were running behind. I thought about how fortunate my children were to grow up here.
Watching the Amish as they sustain life off the land, they are indeed the true archetypes of organic living. I am inspired by their unpretentious, genuine, farm-to-table pioneer lifestyle separated from the outside world. That’s an appealing prospect to me, too.
As I passed the Amish in the field, I slowed my car and rolled down the windows. The smell of their freshly cut hay filled the air with a sweet lemony scent. Pulling over, I parked my car just before a grassy lane, as I often do. It’s several hundred yards from a tremendous grove of pine trees and one of my favorite places. Grabbing my camera, I ventured forth into the woods with plans to capture that very sunset I was expecting. I made my way through the long ferns and tall grass, reaching the area where the timbers tower overhead. Not merely a beautiful setting; it’s a place that makes me feel humbled, small, and connected to the land. Out of nowhere, a sun shower drifted in on the breeze and was gone as quickly as it arrived, leaving me soaked and my skin glistening. I looked down at the moist beads forming on my arms, each like a miniature jewel. The glittering droplets mesmerized me as they spread with a life of their own. I recall feeling distracted by the spectacle, but likewise knew time would not wait.
Refocused, I tried to shift fast to the tempo of Mary had a little lamb… My wet dress inhibited my stride as it clung to my legs as I walked. Then I saw it; a magnificent sunset blew up the sky, and I dropped and knelt in the wet, tall grass, raised my camera level with the gold-tipped foliage and pressed the shutter. It was absolute perfection. I lingered further, staring at the illuminating, shimmering fire of time as it further emptied off into the vast distance. Holding my breath, I pressed the shutter again. The stunningly beautiful view filled me with an intoxicating blissfulness. As I stood up, I started singing my walking game out loud as I made my way back through the woods when, just as I reached the grassy lane, a cool mist emerged out of nowhere and enveloped me in a veil of thick fog. Blinded, I precariously trudged through the wet grass and shuffled to a stop when I finally reached the road.
An Amish horse and buggy was inches in front of me on the road as I stepped onto the pavement. I gasped inwardly and stood motionless while it passed in what looked like slow motion, so close it nearly touched me. Clear as day, peeking out from beneath straw hats and bonnets, Amish eyes met mine. I bowed my head. They bowed their heads back. It was an evocative, understood synergy captured within a protective shroud of fine white light. Our two worlds united in a nanosecond and then separated. Swallowed up by the thickening fog, they disappeared as if in a dream.
Lightheaded, I stood still and listened to the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves rising and falling, and it too faded, ousted by the melody of the night peepers rising louder in the nearby pond behind me. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, the foggy mist lifted, leaving the sky streaked with the last pink and violet remnants of the earlier setting sun overhead. I knew destiny was again at play.
Wow. The Amish buggy incident happened over three hours ago and now seems like a mirage. Surreal. As if I imagined it. I have walked all the way home while threading and stitching together my Amish shawl of history, now draped around my shoulders. Damp, yet warm and settled, I stand in front of my farmhouse and look down at my long black dress and lift the skirt, revealing my tall black boots and giggle like a child. Vindicated, I announce my final decree; I look like an Amish outcast!
I stare up at the sky, now a velvety black backdrop. The endless twinkling stars are three-dimensional and hypnotic. As I gaze deep into the starry layers, I conclude that there are certain truths in life that you can’t change. They are absolute.
Once Amish, always Amish. Real or not.