Living Mystery

I am reading a book called After the Fire: The Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish by Randy-Michael Testa.  Kirkus’ Review sums up the basics thus: “As a Harvard graduate student, former third-grade teacher at a Denver private school, and serious ethical thinker of Catholic persuasion and “morally tired” condition, Testa spent the summer of 1988 living with an Amish family in Lancaster County, where he conducted fieldwork for a Ph.D. thesis exploring a “community of faith”.”

Here is an excerpt that echoes all the discussions Steve & I have about living a life that embodies our values, a grounded life, a life of depth.

“…Dorothy Day once quoted from the Archbishop of Paris: ‘To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.’

   “I stand barefooted thinking of Elam.  Earlier in the week, he and I trooped across the Franklin and Marshall College campus to the library to look for some maps of the county.  In lieu of classes, campus had been taken over for the summer.  Everywhere there were boys in soccer gear and coaches in black shorts and white and black striped shirts blowing whistles and clapping their hands and yelling, ‘Atta boy!  Good work!  Good WORK!’

   “Elam and I had just driven in from the farm.  I had been up since five working in the sweltering barn, where I am regularly stung in the eyes by sweat rolling off my head.  My white shirts are permanently stained yellow.  I have gained ten pounds and back muscles.  I sleep so soundly in the Stoltzfus house I sometimes awaken myself with my own snoring.  So for all that, hearing the word ‘work’ in teh context of a soccer camp seemed like complete insanity.

   “Elam turned to me and asked, ‘What is this?’

   ‘It’s a soccer camp,’ I said.  I felt my soul tense.

   ‘What is ‘soccer’? Elam asked blank-faced.

   ‘It’s a sport.  Like baseball.’ (I knew some Amish played baseball at family outings.) ‘These boys are here to learn how to play it better,’ I replied quickly.

   ‘But why?  It’s a game,’ Elam said, puzzled.

   ‘These boys have paid money to come here to learn how to play a sport better,’ I repeated tersely.

   ‘But why would they go to school to learn a sport?’ he persisted.

   ‘Because the outside world doesn’t have or value productive, meaningful work for its young men, so it teaches them that it’s important to know how to play a sport well.  This keeps them occupied until they go to college and THEN THEY PAY A LOT OF MONEY TO COME HERE AND ASK WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE!!!’

   “I practically turned on him- and my own world.  I shocked Elam with my vehemence.  I shocked myself as well.  I wondered what was happening to my view of the world.

   “Now, standing in Levi’s meadow in the middle of the night, suddenly I understand what has happened.  At this hour, in this stillness, among these people, life makes perfect sense.  The outside world does not.  I have become a witness.

   “I return to the upstairs bedroom as the blue mantel clock in Elam and Rachel’s room chimes three, and fall asleep to a cow lowing in the moonlight.”

To live in a way that embodies your deepest values, despite persecution, propaganda, and perspiration.  That seems like an honest life to me.  I hope I have the courage to live like that.

(photos taken at Old World Wisconsin, the living history museum where I work as a costumed interpreter)

We Amid The Flood

It’s been pouring and thundering and lightning all day.  The Bustle Hustle was cancelled, and I ended up waiting out the storm in the basement of 4-Mile Inn, which flooded.  Rain went down those cellar steps and right into the staff room where we were sitting around chit-chatting.  Out came the mops and buckets and dust bins…anything to scoop the water up.   Suddenly the whimsical display of brightly colored swim fins and floaties and paddles someone had tacked to the back of the door made sense.  When it let up a bit, I made the trek down the road to St. Peter’s under my umbrella.  I didn’t stop to think that an umbrella isn’t wide enough to cover my enlarged behind!  My bustle was soaking wet…on the outside.  I didn’t feel it under all those petticoats, but when I sat on the pews, I left water marks.   I needed to inject some humor into the situation, so I pumped up the organ and began to play “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”….a bulwark….our helper, He, amid the flood (of mortal ills prevailing).   Visitors finally trickled in along with the rain, but I only had about ten in 5 hours. 

I met some new volunteers and staff people in the course of the day, and enjoyed talking to them about dreams and lifestyles.  How do you want to live?  What are you finding important at this stage of your life?  Many are retired or old enough to be.  Hobby farms, family history, grandparenting and traveling were hot topics with this crowd.  There are also the college students, who talk about classes and shopping at Good Will and how to survive on minimum wage.  Most took cover under ground in the storm, a few stayed out on the porch to watch the power of nature in the sky.   The horses turned their rear ends to the oncoming winds and whinnied a bit, but weathered the day in their own way. 

I think about resilience, expectations and comfort.  The immigrants whose stories we tell at Old World Wisconsin were of heartier stock than us 21st century types.  They pushed across miles of unknowns without a “smart phone” to tell them where they were, what was ahead, and what the weather pattern was likely to be.   They looked up and around, assessed the situation to the best of their ability, and went ahead.  What happened…happened.  They made their own fun, they solved problems with their own strength and wits, and they passed on what they could to their children.   I like their spirit. 

And when the rains come, “don’t forget to wear your rubbers!”  (My mother’s voice echoes from my childhood…)


I’m back in the 21st century today, having breakfast with Steve’s mother, doing laundry at the laundromat, that kind of thing.  My heart is still somewhere in the world of 150 years ago.  The deep connection with the land is something that I miss in this century.  I learned about the process of making linen from flax.  It is a very complex  procedure, actually.  The fibers of the flax plant are like the phloem and xylem in a maple tree.  They run from root to branch tips, and they are beneath the green outer husk and outside of the hard woody core.  That corresponds to the sapwood in a tree that lies under the bark and around the heartwood.  The flax is pulled up from the roots so as not to shorten those fibers.  Then, it’s placed in running water or on dewy ground to rot away the green outer husk.  This can take a month.  Next, you take it to the threshing floor of the barn to break up the woody chaff.  There are a few different machines that aid in that step.  Combing the strands through a nail board leaves long hanks of golden fibers and short curly bits that are stuck in the spikes, which is called tow.  That’s where we get expressions about flaxen hair and towheads.   The fibers are wound on a distaff for spinning; tow can be spun like wool.  I’d never tried spinning before.  It’s a lot more difficult than it looks at first!

Thatched roof barn

Linen making is extremely labor intensive.  The retting process where microorganisms dissolve the outer husk is the prohibitive part for Old World Wisconsin, apparently, so they buy their flax at about $40 pound ready to break and spin.  Which finally gets you around to having skeins of linen.  But then, just setting up the loom seems like it would take forever!  Imagine setting up a loom for a 400-count cotton sheet…that’s 400 threads per inch.  Of course, that’s all done on industrial machines now.  Factory-made cotton cloth was available and cheaper by the mid-19th century, but linen was sometimes useful as a back-up during the Civil War.  Factory made shoes were available as well.

We’re off to have breakfast with Steve’s mom.  I’m imagining eating in the ladies’ parlor at 4-Mile Inn….


Another day at the living history museum under my belt.  The new thing I did today was make rhubarb sauce from the gigantic rhubarb plants in the garden.  Not that I actually ate any, I just boiled it in water on the wood stove for a few hours so that the smell would permeate the summer kitchen.  I didn’t have any sugar at first, so my initial taste was very sour!  It reminded me of my mom making rhubarb and custard from the rhubarb in our garden.  My mother didn’t garden a lot, so this was impressive to me.   I know she helped her parents with a “Victory Garden” during WWII, but she was pretty young.   She shops at farmer’s markets and does delicious things with fresh produce, but she doesn’t grow it herself.  I’m looking forward to more garden-to-table assignments. 

I love that this job allows me to be outside so much.  We had thunderclouds overhead for much of the day, but no rain.  The humidity was high, but there was a breeze kicking up from the storm front miles away.  And I noticed a fishy smell first thing today…I guess with storm conditions you can smell Lake Michigan from 50 miles away?!  Unless there’s another explanation.  Anyway, I thought I’d share some photos I took of outbuildings and such. 

The blacksmith shop with St. Peter’s in the background.

When “nature calls”, you can head for the woods…

…or use the 3-holer out by the garden. Good idea planting the fragrant lilacs right beside it!

As you can tell, I’ve got a fabulous work environment!  I’m loving this job.  🙂



Opening Day

May Day!  The first day of the season for Old World Wisconsin.  We were open to the public as well as conducting school tours.  In the German area, there was only one school of 68 students that came through.  In the Crossroads Village, they had 3 tours with students from 4 schools, one of which was a group of 8th graders from France.  I also had a single adult visitor, an adult couple, and a family with 3 children from Arizona come by.   In other words….PEOPLE.   Real, live people with stories and questions and backgrounds making connections.  This is living history, after all.  And I love it!  I had so much fun with the 3 kids from Arizona who shaped dough and pounded the froe to chop kindling, and smiled and talked the whole time.  They were enjoying themselves, and their parents were snapping pictures and asking questions.  They were learning and engaging in a very comfortable way…they were homeschooling.  I really like the small group interaction involved:  3 adults, 3 kidsVery nice.  Somehow, when it’s a group of 21 kids and 3 chaperones, there’s almost more crowd control going on than learning.   Or so it appears.  I hope they learned something; I hope they were listening and paying attention to more than just their classmates and the instructions the chaperones were giving. 

So all of that went on in about an hour…and I had several more to kill.  The great thing is that I don’t feel any pressure to be super productive the whole time.  I chopped wood and carried water and washed dishes and tended the fire and sewed on my pin cushion and all of that good stuff, but then I sat down on the porch and watched a thirteen-striped ground squirrel scurry around the yard near the woodpile snarfing up dandelion seeds.  Just quietly, listening to the birds.  Minutes went by.  I felt the land around me and thought about the sense of time and energy that a tree feels when it’s “busy” growing.  The woods, the fields, the garden…they are living under the sky at a pace that is so different from us movers and shakers.  They feel the air, the light changes, rain falls, things happen and they respond, but they don’t “react”.  I want to learn more about that way of life.  How long can you “not react”?  It’s like practicing meditation.  Breathe and be.  Light changes, form changes.  Breathe and be.  Everything changes.  Breathe and be.  I think that’s what I’m learning from nature.  I am very happy to be spending more time outdoors.   


Making New Friends

During training for my new job at Old World Wisconsin, I was introduced to many new friends.   On the last day of training, I took some pictures.  Here are some portraits and brief bios about my new co-workers.

This is Bear and Ted, out in their favorite pasture next to the 1860 Schultz farm.  They are a magnificent team of oxen.  Bear is on the left, with a brass horn cap on his left horn.  (“Bear left” is how I remember which one he is.)  This is so that when he is yoked to his buddy Ted, he doesn’t gore him by accident.  Each of them weighs about a ton (2,000 pounds)They like to be rubbed under their chins, but they will drool on you.  I’ve been told that I will now enjoy good luck because Bear drooled on me.   I like how this photo reminds me of the drawings for the book Ferdinand by Robert Lawson.

This is Ted with Bear behind.  (Okay, I couldn’t stop myself.)  They are clever escape artists, but also well behaved.  They managed to bump up against the logs that cross the fence opening in such a way that they worked them free from their supports.  They carefully stepped over them and went out to the garden in front of the homestead and helped themselves to the red cabbage growing there.  Then, they went back into their pasture.  The next morning, the staff looked at the obviously nibbled produce and the huge hoof prints in the garden and thought, “Oh no!  The oxen are loose!”  But there were Bear and Ted, looking innocent as can be from the pasture enclosure.  But then they checked the gate, which these guys failed to close behind themselves, and their guilt was confirmed.  I give them credit for sticking to the garden paths and returning home by themselves.  


This is a close up of Ted.  He’s a good worker, slow and steady.  He pulls carts and plows and isn’t as skittish as a horse.  You can hook up a cart to the team and go into town, but it’ll take you a while.  They can run as fast as 30 miles an hour, but not for long.   You can’t saddle them up and ride them because their spines form a peaked roof that’s uncomfortable for the rider (and probably for the animal as well).  Sometimes a farmer would put a child on the ox’s back for a short time, just for fun.  They are very docile, and these guys respond to commands like “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa” and “Get up” and “Back up” very cooperatively.  They kick to the side instead of straight back, so when you walk beside them, you want to be in front of their back legs.  So, that’s Bear and Ted.  Here’s another team member.  We call her Queen.

She and Quincy make up our team of Percherons.  Stud horses were brought over from Europe in the mid 19th century and bred with local mares to improve the stock of draft horses for heavy farm work.  I don’t know the pedigree of Queen and Quincy, but I imagine they’re crossbreeds.  What non-profit museum could afford purebreds?  They do a lot of wagon hauling in the harvest season, I think.  Kids love to see them, but they’re massive and a tad dangerous.  We have some quite elderly horses who provide the petting and photo opportunities for visitors with less risk.   Steve put his apple core in Queen’s feed box just about 20 minutes before I snapped this photo.  That may be why she’s giving me such a benevolent look.

This is Lily.  She and her paddock mate Daisy (who was known last year as Thelma) are over in the Koepsell farm, where they are installing a new exhibit called Life on the Farm.  They’re erecting a petting barn for baby animals, and Lily will be used for milking after she’s calved.  Oh, yes.  She’s pregnant.  Look in her eyes and you can see the fatigue and determination of a heavily laden mother-to-be, can’t you?  She will be producing milk for our dairy demonstrations: cream separation, butter churning, cheese-making and such.  I am hoping to get the opportunity to milk her.  I used to milk goats at a camp when I was in college, and I really enjoyed it.  We milk by hand at OWW, of course.  It seems like a very intimate way to get to know another working mother.  Perhaps it will produce a beautiful friendship.  

  The pigs who will be in the piggery over in my area haven’t been moved onto the site yet.  One sow just gave birth to a litter of 7 about two weeks ago, and another is about to drop her litter any day.  The piglets are still too young and the weather too cool, but I will get a batch in a few weeks, I imagine.  I’ve been instructed to name them things like “Bacon” and “Hammie” if anyone asks.  Hog butchering is one of our autumn events. 

I am very excited about working with these creatures.  I want to be more aware of my anthropocentric mindset and challenge myself to think outside of that box.  I wonder about the relationships we have with animals and the domination that we assume in those relationships.  I expect that there is a lot more to discover than what we are used to or instructed to consider.     

Home and Hearth 2

I love my daughter.  I love having her visit, and I love how we slip into a comfortable companionship around making meals, talking, laughing, reminiscing and being outside.  I love feeling that we are genuine with each other.  It wasn’t always this way, of course, especially not when she was a teenager and I was an anxious mother.  Ah, but it’s wonderful to mature. 

I wonder how my relationship with my children would be different if my husband were still alive.  Would we act as advisers?  Would we be cheerleaders?  Would we be judgmental?  Would we be willing to share our mistakes and successes?  Would we be anxious?  Would we be distant? 

I guess I feel like I can be more transparent, perhaps as if hindsight had opened up a window.  I am able to offer my marriage as an example without feeling like I am betraying any confidence. 


  I suppose we learn by watching someone else’s example…and then rolling up our sleeves and doing it our own way.  How did your parents influence the way you deal with money?  or the way you communicate with your partner?  or the way you take care of your health?  When did their example stop influencing you? 

My children are like embers from the fire my husband and I ignited. Our fire is extinguished; they’ve gone on to light their own blaze in the world.  I hope they will be warmed and comforted by their own energy.



Home and Hearth

I’m anticipating the arrival of my middle daughter for a sleep over visit.  I have done the dishes, swept and mopped the kitchen floor, changed the sheets and made the bed.  My 21st century house is maybe about 75 years old.  The houses I help keep up at my Old World Wisconsin job are about 135 years old.  What remains constant about hospitality?  The desire to provide a degree of comfort out of respect for another person.  The pride of being able to offer, no matter how humble, an invitation to share what you have with another person, be it space, warmth, food, shelter, peace or love.  “For it is in giving that you shall receive.”


I am enjoying a sense of maturity in my ideas about homemaking, a sense of seasoning.  As a young wife and mother, I was extremely anxious about entertaining.  I felt that everyone who walked through my front door was judging me.  I was sure that I wasn’t doing things the “right” way and that everyone could tell that I was faking being a “good” mother.  I hardly ever had the sense that people who visited me were actually interested in enjoying time with me.  I suppose you could just label that “low self-esteem”.  So what does self-esteem have to do with hospitality?  Perhaps it’s simply that until you esteem yourself, it’s hard to know how to esteem someone else, or until you know how to be comfortable in your own skin, it’s hard to know how to help another person be comfortable in his or hers.  That’s what I want to be able to offer my guests: a place where they can be at peace with themselves, with me, and with their surroundings.  A place to experience welcome and contentment —  home and hearth.     

Old School

“Please excuse Priscilla’s absence from the blogosphere yesterday.  Her make-up work will be completed on time.”  Signed by my mother.  Do I need an excuse?  I was tired.  The week of training is now complete.  We are ready to open on May 1st.  Here are some shots to whet your appetite; I promise that I will be posting more anecdotes and photos from my new job at Old World Wisconsin.  Imagine filling up your tank with gasoline while dressed in 19th century clothing…and then going inside and asking to use the rest room.  Imagine stopping by the post office on your way home from work dressed like this as well.  Yes, we did these things.  So far no one has asked for an explanation.  In the case of the Postal employees, they know us really well and we’ve been talking about this for weeks.  They were thrilled.  As for the gas station, it was one in the same town, so I’m sure they’re used to costumed customers.  Oh, I should tell you that I’ve decided to drop the poetry challenge.  I really enjoyed the challenge when I had more free time, now it seems like an obligation that I don’t want to fulfill.  So, thanks for the good time, NaPoWriMo, but I’m moving on!

This one's for Helen because she wanted to see my corset!

Me & Steve in full garb. I have a different outfit for weekends when I am in the village church. This is my farm wife costume.

This is the bake house or summer kitchen where I will be teaching kids to knead dough while talking to them about life on the farm.

More to come, friends.  I now need to spend some time cleaning my 21st century house in preparation for a visit from my middle daughter tomorrow!

Field Trips

Today was another great day of training at Old World Wisconsin.  School groups are coming tomorrow!  Today I learned how to use a wood burning stove.  I made a fire in both the stove and the bake oven and made coffee and creamed bratwurst on the stove.  The rest of the crew from the German area came over for lunch bringing fried potatoes and caramelized turnips to complete our lunch.  It was so satisfying to play hostess knowing that I’m beginning to truly feel at home in that way of life.  I offered tin cups of hot coffee to the menfolk, and chairs to the most senior members of the group.  I swept the floor after everyone left, did the dishes, and then had about an hour completely on my own to read up on the history of the buildings and to begin to darn some wool socks.   When I returned to the training facility at the end of the day, my costumes were ready for me to try on.  I have one for my role in the farmhouse and one for my role as the organist at the Catholic Church in the village.  I get to wear a hooped bustle and a fancy hat with a hatpin for that one! 

I feel like I’m being paid to cook over a campfire…I usually have to pay for that privilege!  I need to practice up on my school group presentation for tomorrow.  No poetry tonight, sorry!