from Randy Testa
told to Pamela Gerloff
© 2004 by More Than Money. All rights reserved. For permission
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Randy Testa, Ed.D., is a teacher and
editor living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author
of two books on the Amish community,
After the Fire:
The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish
the Valley of the Shadow: An Elegy to Lancaster County.
He has co-edited, with Robert Coles, two literary anthologies,
Growing Up Poor
A Life in Medicine.
For me, living a happy life is mainly about
living a life of value. When I was a doctoral student trying
to decide on my thesis topic, an event happened that greatly
affected me. I had gone home to visit my parents, who were
living just outside of Valley Forge National Park in Pennsylvania.
I was out for a run and came across an enormously long line
of traffic on Route 23, which cuts through the park before
continuing on to the turnpike. At the front of the line
was a Conestoga covered wagon with an Amish family riding
in it. There was a father, a mother, two daughters, and
a collie, all pulled by two Percheron horses that were frothing
at the mouth; it was 93 degrees that day.
I don't know why, but something welled up
in me and I felt such sympathy for these people. I was so
embarrassed by my own world, in a way I still can't explain
to myself, that I ran up to help them find a place where
they could pull off the road and water their horses in the
park. They got water for their horses, we talked for a bit,
the park service personnel gave their horses some oats,
and I went on my way. (I heard on the news that night that
the family had made it to the other side of Philadelphia
with the help of a police escort.)
When I left the park, I went up along Route
23 and sat under a tree and just wept. I thought, "I want
to write about that." So I arranged to spend the summer
of 1988 in an Amish community. When I left my Amish friends
at the end of the summer with my heart on my sleeve, I asked
my host family if I could come back.
I've been going back monthly since.
These trips back and forth over the years
form the centerpiece to my way of seeing the world, which
is hard for me to characterize. My Amish friend-whom I will
call Levi here-and I read
a few years ago. Levi devoured the book-especially the scenes
in which Levin, a character based on Tolstoy himself, is
working on his estate in the country. In one scene, Levin
invites one of his city friends to his estate. To Levin's
dismay, his friend is completely uninterested in the working
of the farm; he just sits around all weekend as if he's
at a spa, admiring "the countryside." Since then, Levi and
I have had a long-standing joke: When we are in the thick
of hard, important farm work, like milking the cows or baling
hay and loading it into the barn, I'll ask,
the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County
By Randy-Michael Testa
(University Press of New England, 1992)
While visiting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,
Randy Testa had a chance encounter with an Amish family.
In 1988 he returned to live among them, gathering
field observations for his doctoral dissertation about
the Amish as a moral community. In this book, Testa
describes the conflicts that existed in Lancaster
County between the opposing forces of land stewardship
and land development, and between the moral values
of the Amish and the material values of the outside
world. The struggle of the Amish to keep their way
of life intact, resisting the ways and values of the
modern world, offers insights into the values and
driving forces of larger American society.
"Am I being
like Levin's city friend?"
and his family help keep me honest, and mindful of what
is of value to them-and, on most days, to me, too. From
Levin's wife I learned to drive a team of mules. I've learned
that there is a power to working together, really working
shoulder to shoulder on a family farm, that makes me understand
why so many of Jesus' parables-which are so important to
the Amish-had to do with planting and harvesting.
tension between going to the Amish community and coming
back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I live, creates
a kind of paradox. It leads me to ask myself, "What is of
writer Wendell Berry reminds us that the word
in fact comes from the Greek word for
The Amish community is, in some sense, a large extended
family; it's one big household. Life in an Amish household
has to do with faith; being Amish is not a "lifestyle."
In my view, a lifestyle consists of a set of marketed diversions,
like styling gel or a food processor. For the Amish, faith
is not a diversion; it's a totally consuming preoccupation.
what is of value
? becomes, for them
and for their economy, not a monetary question, but a spiritual
question. An Amish bishop once said, "We don't prepare our
children for the future, we prepare our children for eternity."
That's a very different perspective than we who live in
the "worldly" world (as the Amish call it) are used to,
despite what we might have seen on television via
in the City
are the kinds of things I find myself thinking about here
in my life in Cambridge. These reflections have led to certain
choices, which are my small attempt to resolve the paradox
of these two very different ways of life. I don't own a
car. I take public transportation whenever I can. I do things
that are "less convenient" whenever possible- because, for
the Amish, there is no such thing as convenience and, from
them, I've learned the value of that. They're smart, because
they know that convenience is generally going to come at
a cost to some member of the community. An Amish family
that puts together a monthly newspaper might have everyone
in the family working on it-from a two year-old to a grandfather
who is deaf as a post. Involving everyone in the activity
may not be the most convenient or efficient way to put out
a newspaper, but everybody's involved nonetheless. And they
produce a darn good little newspaper! Gandhi said the means
is the end in the making. That's really true for the Amish.
What they do and how they do it is rooted in the question
is it important?
world, we think in terms of the ends justifying the means.
Maybe we made quota at work-but we fired 500 people. Certainly
the Amish are not perfect. They are human beings before
they are Amish. But, in general, there is more of a connection
between thought, word, and deed among the Amish than in
the rest of American society. For the Amish, the way you
eat is the same as the way you farm, and the way you pray,
and the way you behave with your neighbors.
what I find myself examining: the disconnections between
thought, word, and deed-in my own life and in my society.
Doing things that deliberately inconvenience me helps me
make that examination, because it slows me down. To think
good thoughts, you have to move slowly-or at least slower
than you usually do. There's a wonderful little children's
Henry Hikes to Fitchburg
[by D. B. Johnson,
Houghton Mifflin, 2000]. It's a story inspired by a passage
from the writings of Henry David Thoreau. In the book, two
friends decide to see which of them can get from Concord
to Fitchburg, Massachusetts the fastest. Henry walks the
30 miles to Fitchburg; his friend works to save up money
to take the train. Henry has all kinds of pleasant experiences
on his walk: climbing trees, swimming in a pond, having
adventures. When he arrives in Fitchburg by foot, his friend
is already there, "smiling in the moonlight."
train was faster," his friend says. Henry takes a small
pail from his backpack, smiles, and says, "I know. I stopped
story is about value and the fact that gains and losses
are always relative to one another.
have any answers-I have to live with the tension of struggling
to be in the world but not of the world. The answer is not
for all of us to become
Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology
By Eric Brende
Are we better off than we were without our modern
technology? In what ways, and in what ways not? Why,
for example, hasn't all our technology given us more
time to do what we enjoy? To answer such questions,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Eric
Brende and his wife went to live for a year and a
half in a community he calls the "Minimites" in order
to preserve their privacy. Among the Minimites, use
of technology is a conscious choice. Physical exercise,
social contacts, and mental challenges are integrated
into daily life. Brende offers the non-Minimites among
us possibilities for freeing ourselves from rampant
technology so we can reduce stress, improve health,
and expand happiness.
But with that said, one of the things I love about Eric Brende's
is that he examines this question of
value. I love the example he gives of his wife choosing to
use a washing machine with a hand crank because it allows
her to get an aerobic workout while doing the laundry. She
is making choices about what is of value.
in our modern world do struggle in small daily ways to maintain
what they value. One morning last fall, when the bus I ride
every day to work turned a corner, we saw that a boy had
gotten hit by a car. The little boy was lying there screaming
in a way I had never heard a child scream in my life. The
bus couldn't go any farther because the street was blocked
off by the police. So everybody got off the bus and we all
walked together to Harvard Square. We were overwhelmed by
what we had seen. We chose to walk together, and not a word
was said. Those kinds of moments-when people come together-you
have to mark in your own life, and notice them, because
they point to something bigger. Those moments ask us to
remember that we are connected to one another. They ask
us to remember what is of value..
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