My friend Michele is a writer. This summer, in Ohio, she had a week to kill between dropping off and picking up her daughter and niece at summer camp, so she decided to avail herself of some of the local Amish community.
“Thinking I will learn something, I visit Amish country. Sure enough, there is nothing to do. As promised, I see people in buggies and on bicycles. I see boys fishing in ponds. I see people walking up and down roads. Everyone seems cheerful. I find a windmill maker, a birdhouse maker, a chair maker, a broom maker. None seem particularly anxious to sell anything.
In Yoder’s store, where I buy a few hand-drawn coloring books, there is a small index card with writing, in script: ‘Newlywed Special. 10% off furnishings for all newlyweds, to set up your new house. To be used by your first anniversary.’ There are cups, and bowls, and plates, and coffeepots. There are dishtowels, and trivets. There is, in this small set of rooms where the only sound is that of a ticking clock, everything one could need for a house.”
So I asked Michele about her experiences. Had she gone specifically to learn something, or had she gone merely to observe? Is she, as I asked her pointedly, a seeker?
No, she said, she is not a seeker. There is a Buddhist phrase she asked me if I knew of: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. After enlightenment, chop wood, haul water.” In other words, do things one at a time; they need to be done. She went looking to see if the Amish live their lives one task at a time. She did not come away with one answer.
I am struck by the image of that general store. It was not the Town Square general store of our minds a la Little House on the Prairie; it was a man’s house, a few rooms of which were devoted to commerce. Can you imagine finding all you need to set up your house and live your life in one store? Sure, Target or Wall*Wart fit the bill, and, of course there are charity second-hand stores like Goodwill that could, too. But the idea of parsing your life down from what you want to what you only need? Now there, there is a thought to live by.
I believe we all find something inspiring in a willful existence. Unplugging from the hurly-burly craziness of 21st century life for an 18th century one sounds appealing to those of us trying to declutter and simplify our lives. It may not be THE answer, but there is something small there to learn. Chop wood…