Soooo, here’s a little confession that might surprise some people: much of my increased interest in pre-Christian European heritage and ancestors has stemmed from living in such a hugely Amish and Mennonite area. Despite living near a factory and train line, I still hear the clippity clop of Amish horse and buggies at least a few times per week, even while sitting on our futon. Our farmers market has Amish vendors. Our credit union has a horse manure bin, and the local Walmart, ALDI and Menard’s all have buggy parking.
I’ve traded recipes, kefir grains and plant cuttings with an Amish family, and I have a(n Amish) 5-pointed star on my garden trellis facing the street, which means when the 9+ family bicycle outings of Amish ride by, they always wave. Indeed, we share an interest in gardening and protection magic, although I’m sure they’d use different words to describe their stars.
I love the Amish I’ve met here, and if I weren’t so concerned I’d get them in trouble with the bishop for hanging out with faery-witchy me, I’d be much more social. They know loads about natural healing, gardening, organic farming, self-reliance, and off-grid technology. They don’t have driver’s licenses either, and they’ve got no qualms about honoring spiritual principles over stupid, invasive laws and customs. I respect that, though our views on religion (and women) differ. Widely.
On various occasions, I’ve talked with Amish people on their cell phones. Oh, yes, the Amish have cell phones. And solar powered aquaponics systems. And refrigerators and fancy fishing boats. I have it on good authority that some Amish children (and husbands) even eat … Cap’n Crunch!
One of my all time favorite memories of living in Goshen was when David and I drove up to some Amish friends of ours and saw two of the three young children working with their mother in the garden. When they turned around in their blue and grey Amish outfits, the little boy and girl had on fluorescent green and fluorescent pink heart-shaped sunglasses! David needed to calm me down before we exited the vehicle, because my cute-o-meter was on overdrive. I think I actually squealed.
Among many other things, David’s Dutch father is a Mennonite historian, specializing in both European and North American Anabaptist traditions: the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites. Not only have I learned about these traditions by osmosis; I’ve also listened to countless explanations of the differences between “black bumper Mennonites,” “Amish,” “Old Order Mennonites,” “Dutch Mennonites,” “Pennsylvania Dutch,” and “Church of the Brethren.” (It’s all very complicated, so please don’t quiz me. Apparently, if you grow up Amish and/or Mennonite or first generation ex-Amish, which it seems most people here did, then you just know these things.)
I grew up in Bethlehem, PA, founded by Moravians, and of course, everyone in Quaker-founded Pennsylvania knows about the Amish in Lancaster. But before moving to Goshen, I had never heard of “The Menno Game.” After “hi” and sometimes even before “nice to meet you,” people share who’s married to and/or descended from whom and by way of which spelling of which 3-6 syllable German-sounding, often hyphenated last name, in order to establish lineage and relationship to one another. Though not by any stretch of the imagination a Mennonite, thanks to my time in Goshen, I can now play passable, vicarious rounds of The Menno Game. (I can also play “A Vonderful Goot Game” of Dutch Blitz.)
When we first moved to Goshen, I found the Menno Game extremely irritating. David’s not a practicing Mennonite, but he’s got the cred’s. Me? I’ve got some pirates, a distant, but unclear connection to Admiral Byrd, and a mishmash of Irish, English, Welsh, German and Eastern European, and somewhere way, way back, maybe a bit of the Anabaptist Roger Williams. Or not. Williams is a mighty common name.
My paternal grandmother’s family came over ten years after the Mayflower. Supposedly, I’m a Daughter of the American Revolution on both sides of the family, but other than these snippets, I know little to nothing of my lineage. Due to many secrets, conflicting stories, and exaggerations and omissions, I feel more certain about details of my own past lives than the history or identity of my ancestors.
I’ve lived in over 40 locations, often exclusive resort areas or high cost cities, but I never felt like an outsider until moving to “Menno Ghetto” Goshen. Not everyone here is Mennonite or Amish, but the more famous Lancaster is also more diverse. I’ve spoken to some other Outlanders about this, and they’ve agreed: there’s something about the patriarchal conformity, close-knit church communities, plain values, modest dress, severe hairstyles, and flat, grid like land of Goshen that makes you positively yearn for the Goddess.
Well, obviously, not everyone feels that way (hardly!), but for some of us, the contrast of all this community focused on a loving, generous, earthy, yet highly patriarchal culture and strict dogma triggers the inner longing for the Divine and Sacred Feminine so strongly that even if you overlooked Her before, you’ll pine for Her after living here for awhile. Or not. Apparently, most people here don’t, and that’s when I realized, I’m not just a little different. I’m not agnostic. And I’m not just a lone wolf. I value community, and I value compatible spiritual community.
Once I started my own little offshoot group of gardeners, poets and pagans celebrating the Wheel of the Year, I was able to admit to myself that the thing I found most irritating about The Menno Game was that I have almost no idea about my own lineage beyond my grandparents and a few rumors. My maiden name, “Derbenwick” isn’t even a real surname. It just happened to be the last of three consecutive misspellings of my immigrant, paternal grandfather’s last name on his BS, MS and PhD diplomas from Stanford. Coming from a family of illiterate Eastern European farmers, he didn’t bother to correct the spelling, and to this day would-be family historians argue about the original spelling, location and culture of the paternal side of the family.
My mom’s mom divorced twice, and each time she completely reinvented herself and her history. Who knows what’s real and what’s a convenient half-truth?! Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that my family knows how to reinvent itself, and that’s a trait I know I share. Brain injury gotcha down? Can’t read books anymore? No problem. Turn your intended PhD in English literature into a career of “reading” people. Don’t like your life’s trajectory? No problem. Tell yourself a different story, and claim it as your own. Stories are powerful, and ultimately, we do — or at least can — exert tremendous influence over our own scripts. For that lived reality, I thank both sides of my mysteriously dysfunctional family.
But living in the Land of Goshen, filled with people who can track their 100 first cousins, or who know their second cousins, twice removed, along with their detailed family history through four or more generations, I do sometimes feel culturally adrift. That quirky Menno Game and the Amish connection to tradition highlight my own gypsy, mutt, forgotten and confabulated ancestry, which oddly enough, gives me more in common with the majority of 21st century Westerners, even though I’m such a minority here.
Planting roots here (literally and figuratively) after all those relocations has forced me to recognize not knowing my own heritage as a kind of disability. I’ve finally realized why the powers that want to remain work so hard to uproot families via war, “free” trade deals, regulations and hostile corporate takeovers. Without conscious effort, uprooted people lose their heritage and with it, some of their strength. This orchestrated refugee crisis in Europe uproots not only those immigrating into Europe from Africa and the Middle East, but in such large volume it simultaneously uproots people in their own homeland. Tiny villages where families have lived for 400+ years suddenly have more Muslims than natives. Cities have no-go zones where native citizens can no longer go, where police fear to enter, allowing foreign law and customs to rule instead.
In our global economy and multi-cultural world, with such ease of transportation and communication, it’s so effortless to lose touch with the land, with our ancestors, and with our culture. It takes effort to reconnect, and having lived in an environment now where people do value and maintain their heritage, history and culture — even as they evolve with the times — I see that the effort to connect pays deep, incalculable rewards. We are all immigrants to varying degrees, but in this rapidly shifting, increasingly virtual world, we need to feel a real sense of belonging — to our communities and to our land, wherever and whatever those mean. We draw strength from those connections, and if we do not have them available from our histories, then we need to nurture them in our present and our future. We will be the next generations’ ancestors.
For my part, I anchor myself on this little plot of land here and by building local community. We are creating our own traditions and reinvigorating older, forgotten ways. I steep myself in stories from the Celts and Norse, tales of Middle Earth, Hollow Earth, Asgard, and Midgard, (Admiral Byrd, please visit me in my dreams … I’ve got some questions!). Over the decades, I’ve come to recognize the Hindu pantheon and stories as originating from the same source as the Celtic and Norse traditions. I study. I sing. I dream, and I create. I anchor myself through detailed past life recollections and through extensive local and global community. I share plant cuttings, trade clothing, and exchange cultures — sourdough, kefir, yogurt. There are so many ways to build connections through time and space.
This post is long, and it’s very late here. The Amish have long since gone to bed with the sun, as at one time, most people on the planet did. I hope my wandering and centering encourages each of you to seek, find and grow deeper roots. We will need them.
Blessed Be … and be the blessing