The following is excerpted from The Spirit of Disruption, a collection of 28 boundary-pushing essays with new commentary from each contributor, edited by Steven Church.
Before Shipshewana, things were clear. Out on the turnpike, I drove past the Sternwheeler, where enthusiasts placed bets. Semis parked by roadside trailers advertising adult relaxation, and on billboard, Godzilla-blondes sparked in string bikinis. The only portent that something was amiss came in the form of a storefront in downtown Bloomington, right past the liquor store, Our Lady of the Sheets Coin-Operated Chapel or something like that.
Through the windows I saw crooked figures with bowed heads touching together the corners of white sheets, kneeling, and then doing it again. I dismissed this as nothing more than quaint Midwestern insanity and continued on.
Ah, I remembered the Midwestern insanity: laundromats that doubled as places of worship and crock-pots simmering cocktail wieners in stews of grape jelly and Worcestershire sauce. Nice ladies knit bulky Santa heads onto families of unwearable sweaters, and, in garages, men crafted wooden stands on which to hang bananas. Midwestern insanity cooks itself into the tater-tot casseroles and hums just below the pastel chatter at mother-daughter banquets. I associate Midwestern insanity with the weather, an omnipresent system of pressures and movements, an atmosphere inside of which I had once lived.
Off the highway, past a rest stop that was beginning to disintegrate into a gleaming haze, the road straightened and narrowed to two lanes through a green wood. I saw the first white sign at the edge of the road, a square placard that read Yield to Him. Further on, another message: The One True Way. Yes, this was the right path, but still I couldn’t help but feel an anxiety begin to percolate inside the marrow of my ribs.
But then a third sign, Bakery Ahead–Fresh Strawberry Pie, and I saw in my mind a red sun of strawberries encircled with a ring of golden crust and, at its center, billowing clouds of white-white cream, and the dark trees suddenly slid down into the ground, and all around me the green land unscrolled beneath a wide blue sky, and whatever had been crawling in my bones left entirely, and I thought only toward pie. I drove, past clean white farmhouses and shorn green lawns, whole families of denim and pastel hung in birth order on the lines, past the wheat-colored Amish boy on his bike, past the gardens planted neat as quilt designs, past the piles of manure that looked as good as crumbled chocolate cake. Ponies jumped behind white fences and tossed their blonde manes and yes. Yes! Of course the ponies were dancing, because this was the most beautiful road on the most beautiful day in the most beautiful place on God’s good earth. I opened the sunroof and breathed deeply of the deliciously shitty air.
But there was something about the easy happiness of the penned-up ponies. Ponies were meant to run and, as they did, carry in their hearts a yearning as big as the most giant prairie. They were meant to love the feel of open air as it rushed across their hides and, in this ecstasy, conjure visions of distant horizons to chase. But there they were in the barnyards, behind fences, prancing and smiling their teeth. The anxiety began to crawl again—a place like this could really turn a person crazy—but no. No! I was going to Shipshewana, and I was going to enjoy it.
I had wanted this trip to be my return to goodness, to the foggy ideal of some gleaming Rachel-Yoder-ness conjured by an omnipotent mind. Some might have said I had fallen away from God, while others certainly could have asserted that a glimmering American narrative had taken over in my early twenties: eyes cast westward, a stint in the desert, too many drinks with cowboys of dubious reputation, a shifting toward the sea, the long stare far ashore, a movement that was ever moving away, and afar, toward flora and fauna never before seen in the greening heartland of America.“I had actually been fucked in the head years earlier, some might say, by my religious upbringing in a Mennonite commune.”
I suppose I wanted to find some original Rachel Yoder there in Shipshewana, perhaps the essential Rachel Yoder. I suppose I wanted to see what it felt like to be Rachel Yoder in a place where Rachel Yoder made sense, to wind up on a native expanse of land. I suppose I was trying to be Mennonite, as I once had been, or even Amish, as my father had once been. I suppose I was trying to understand something about the past or, if not understand, come to terms with it. Plus, my uncle ran some sort of museum there and wanted me to visit the place.
Shipshewana was good, at least at first. Good were the big white houses where inside one could engorge oneself with mashed potatoes and noodles. Good were red barns packed with antiques and cheese and furniture. Good the gas station, where window boxes hung, dripping with flowers.
I parked my car at a hitching post by Wana Cup, one of those wooden buildings with a wide porch and sliding window where you order your food from bonneted girls in matching blue dresses, dresses so perfectly Amish I immediately assumed they were fake: English girls, dressed up for the tourists, wearing bikini tan lines underneath their polyester blends.
I wanted to accost them and launch wild accusations regarding the true nature of their true identities, but instead I ordered a Turkey Manhattan, with promises of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy between two slices of homemade bread. I had visions of its vastness and could feel the heft of it in my hands, a physical incarnation of unequivocal wholesomeness and nutritional mayhem. But they didn’t have any left. Instead, I got a BLT and iced tea and pecan cream pie.
“That will be five Yoders and forty cents,” a girl named Doris said. I eyed her suspiciously as I shoved over a fistful of ones, unclear as to the reliability of my senses. The place was full of people who were surely my relatives. I resisted eye contact as I crammed food in my face. The BLT, however, was only a formality in order to reach what I had come for. The pecan cream pie finally presented itself before me as a triangle of sugar and light. Men with long beards talked about the future and what they saw there as I took one bite and then the next. It created in my mouth a divine gastronomy. Signs on the wall read LORD.
I had actually been fucked in the head years earlier, some might say, by my religious upbringing in a Mennonite commune. Or perhaps it was after I became involved with a charismatic man of dubious intent who convinced me of the failings of my religious upbringing and with whom I eventually made my iconic trip West. I contend the mindfuck really hit its pitch in Arizona, though, where, throughout my twenties, I committed myself to all things new age, therapeutic, and 12-step. My father had told me I would always be Mennonite; I could never change, and, moreover, change itself did not even exist. The therapists I saw later had been all about changing whenever I pleased, from troubled Mennonite girl into a secular, self-actualized über-woman-self. I needed only hyperventilate until I cried, pound on a cushion with a bat, and then employ the power of positive thought. The charismatic man felt I was completely untrustworthy and then dumped me.
And I, what did I think? I didn’t know. Thus, the mindfuck began.
I was Mennonite, or I was not. Maybe I had a drinking problem. Really, this was all about the charismatic man who had really been a jerk. But then I became confused, because he had also been very kind and was, in fact, the love of my life. The therapists, however, diagnosed me with a love disease, which meant I was not capable of feeling emotions that weren’t insane. My emotions were not to be trusted nor, perhaps, my mind. I was, after all, untrustworthy, yet I must remember still to value and love myself. Drugs would help, or else make me very, very sick. Perhaps homeopathy held the answers, and so I went on a regime of crushed dove’s wings delivered via the vibrating energies contained in sugar pills. I was told I might consider Mennonites as they related to herd mentality, and perhaps, too, the patriarchy, and, in so doing, find answers there. In the end, all I could be sure of was that Mennonites were either very very good or very very bad.
I found men and women who laid claim to one form or another of transcendent sight highly attractive, whether professional seers, such as homoeopathists, or mere drunken hobbyists in bars. I was susceptible to any person peddling supreme truths. I sought complete solutions or tidy lessons to punctuate the ends of things. I wanted to do away with mystery or, at the very least, mystery’s mysteriousness.
The mindfuck suffused me with an unspecific anxiety. I’ve been buzzing with it ever since.
I sought out my uncle at the museum. Perhaps he had answers or explanations, a gift shop stocked with preserves, or, at the very least, visual manifestations, graphs and diagrams, educational film reels, exhibits on the nature of being and how to construct a feasible self. Perhaps the museum contained a sterile room in which one could wire oneself to a complicated God machine and then experience the joys of transcendence and the triumph of a unified identity.
In an intersection, I passed a black buggy with a slump-shouldered Amish girl at the reins. We locked eyes and through some trick of Amish voodoo or guilt or Midwestern insanity, for one bright second I could feel the weight under which her shoulders sagged, the heat of her clothing, how the world around her passed by slow as dreams, the cars rolling and filled with people who stared, the touch of their eyes. Hooves tapped underneath me like a drum. She wasn’t a vision of the past or some holy nightmare of an alternate self. More like we’d both been spawned in petri dishes and raised by priests in white coats on nutrients and gel. I closed my eyes and for one moment saw our true orientation, garlands of DNA strung from each of us to a pulsing, bone-white moon in a cataclysmic black sky. I felt a pendulum swing inside me, and gravity loosed us, and there we were, floating, and we both turned our faces toward the faraway, blue earth. We extended our hands, longest fingers stretched to touch, and then we were painting ourselves into a fresco on the ceiling of an ancient, beautiful church.
Then I was driving again, and the blue birds dove and landed on white fence posts and pushed their hearts nearly out of their tufted chests as they sang songs about love and sunlight. The silver lake water rippled; the sun blazed round and yellow, and all the signs read “authentic” and “real” and “homemade.” And the anxiety. The anxiety! The perfection of the place closed in around me, providing not even a moment’s opportunity for utter spiritual or mental collapse. Where was the desolate bench on which I might sit down and cry had I need for it? The lonely corner to contemplate my death? The landscape argued order and beauty, that what was broken could easily be fixed. The whole town was built toward capability and answers. In Shipshewana, as in God, all things were possible.
Who is into capability these days? Who really believes in wholeness and mirth? I knew only of prescription pills and talk therapy, ancient stretching performed in silence on thin mats, horoscopes, power crystals, homeopathy, organic food, the power of positive thought, neuroplasticity, meditation, affirmations, needles inserted into the skin, nicotine, caffeine, gossip mags, and the restorative qualities of partially hydrogenated corn syrup.
But then I was in the heart of Shipshewana, and whatever it was that was happening was happening all the way. Blindingly white fences and barns a color of red that bring to mind the first shade of red ever dreamed grew up around me, and everywhere I looked, the town built itself into something horribly familiar and strange: Yoder’s Meat and Cheese. Yoder’s Hardware. Yoder’s Old Town Shoppes. Yoder’s Shopping Center. A white-bearded man in suspenders and a black hat, who I mistook for my grandfather, dead fifty-some years, walked with intention toward a feed store. Three girls in bonnets who were my cousins exited the coffee shop. Through my open window, all I heard were people speaking in familiar, foreign tongues.
They told me I had to come to Shipshewana, that this was a place I had to see. The others who had gone before me proclaimed this. We had all left and journeyed away, and then returned to the Midwest with unspecific longings. I carried with me names of ancestors and lists of dates. I wanted to buy a jar of raspberry jam and other good things to eat. I held in my mind unanswered questions about the chemical foundations of guilt and lingering confusion regarding mirror neurons, which somehow created phantom experiences inside our heads of what we viewed out in the world.
I desired only what was real. I would inquire with the shopkeepers about their wares. Pressing a wedge of Swiss cheese across the counter, I would ask, Is this real? In another store, a faceless doll. What about this?
In truth, there are a number of Rachel Yoders. There is the Rachel Yoder in Shipshewana who I knew most closely as myself; but mere miles away, in the seething metropolis of Indianapolis, there lives another Rachel Yoder who I had happened upon while Googling “Rachel Yoder” in order to find proof of my existence. This Rachel Yoder sings gospel songs in gay clubs. She wore plain clothes and offered baked goods from her wicker basket during drag shows. It’s true: I once tried emailing her—“Rachel Yoder! I love you! I’m Rachel Yoder, too! Can we please meet soon?”—but, much to my chagrin, she never responded. I went so far as to plan a five-hour road trip to a small bar in Vickers, Indiana, where I heard Rachel Yoder would be hosting a gospel brunch but failed to follow through.“I found men and women who laid claim to one form or another of transcendent sight highly attractive, whether professional seers, such as homoeopathists, or mere drunken hobbyists in bars.”
And then there was the Rachel Yoder from Ohio (it’s true, I am from Ohio, too, but this, to be sure, was a different Rachel Yoder, a third Rachel Yoder). The circumstances of Rachel Yoder are almost too tragic to mention. A young Amish girl steers the family buggy home. Meanwhile, over cornfield and stream, a man cleans his rifle and fires a shot toward the woods. Moments later, a mile away, an unbelievably long distance away, extraordinary, actually, if you consider the trajectory the bullet had to travel, the height above the curvature of the earth it must have needed to maintain, Rachel Yoder slumps in her buggy seat and begins bleeding from the head.
And, finally, there is a fourth Rachel Yoder—who has just now occurred to me—who is the Rachel Yoder of the past, the Rachel Yoder of yesteryear, of the desert and the journey and the charismatic man, the Rachel Yoder in a pastel treatment room, who will never once say aloud that the charismatic man was actually not a nice guy, that he was a fucking asshole, and that she wasn’t sick or messed up or some sort of alcoholic, but that this guy was actually the biggest fuckwad she’d ever met, and could she please just leave because there was nothing wrong with her at all, other than the fact that she was around a bunch of people with conflicting definitions of Rachel Yoder, each one of them inaccurate in its own insufferable way?
Yes, that Rachel Yoder. I had forgotten about her.
But what of the fifth and sixth Rachel Yoders? I mean, the Rachel Yoder of the future. And then the Rachel Yoder who hovers in some ether-space of ideas; the Rachel Yoder who is generated via an amalgamation of many thoughts and suppositions from many different people; the Rachel Yoder who appears at, say, her funeral, who is created by the community she keeps. Who is that Rachel Yoder?
When I speak of the mindfuck I speak of a failure to assert a self-generated identity, a malfunction of the ego. I speak of worship and belief. I speak of a looking outward and a looking elsewhere and always with an imperative: tell me who to be. Look here: a nice young girl offers the men cookies. Or here: she unlaces his boots and rubs his tired feet. Look over here, at the pretty one, the lovely one, the quiet one, the one who cooks so well. Look at the one with nice teeth, with nice eyes, with nice breasts, with such full hips, the one in heels, the one with a Bible, the one wearing her hair up, the one wearing her hair down. Look at how her shirt falls off her shoulder, how her skirt edges up. Look at how she hugs the men, how she holds them tight and laughs. Look at how she walks, how she talks, how she holds a cigarette, how she hides it. Look at how she moves her eyes and touches him on the arm, the leg, the neck. Look at her make-up, her gum chewing, the way she steers with just one hand. See how the wrinkles around her mouth reveal that she sucks on beer bottles, sucks on cigarettes, how she talks to unfamiliar men in the night while music plays on a jukebox and look at her. I mean, don’t look at her. I mean, look at her, and then turn away and don’t ever—don’t you ever—look again.
I hoped Uncle’s museum might offer some sort of universal map for sale on which I could track my own location. When disoriented, I could consult it and search for the pulsing red light of my own heart. Here, I would say, touching a point, and feel the certainty of my own body grounded in a specific place. “Ah, Rachel,” he said when I arrived.
He acted as though I were in the right place. I had no reason to believe I was not—there in the white house of the museum, raised by a team of 50 Amish men. And of course I had to be, because there were my mother’s jars of apple butter and jam in the gift store, and my father’s books on theology and history propped for sale on shelves.
“Look at this,” I said, raising a book entitled Rachel’s Secret for Uncle to see.
“People love Amish romances,” he said. He obviously did not understand what I was trying to say.
Down the abandoned hall, ten rocking chairs swayed as if moved by the Holy Ghost, each one an exact replica of the one in my parents’ living room. The museum employees lurked in side rooms, devouring licorice, or else materialized from displays to offer up their palms.
“I knew your father when we were boys,” Dick said.
“Your mother has such a beautiful singing voice,” Louise admitted. “Aren’t you a Hartville Yoder?” Wayne asked.
“I am Rachel Yoder,” I replied.
“Of course,” he said. “Did you know Rachel’s my daughter’s name?” “And Wayne’s my dad’s,” I said.
Wayne nodded as if he already knew this. Uncle touched our backs with his hands. They each knew me intimately, as if I were their very own child or pet. I held Rachel’s Secret in my hands. If they read it, they would think it merely a tale of a young Amish widow’s conflicted lust for an injured riverboat captain. But I knew it was more, a story of a woman who was once a girl who had laid on her bed on hot afternoons and seen in her mind a ship traveling through black waters only to reach the edge of the earth, beyond which it was commonly held in both religious and scientific thought, nothing existed. But she ran her ship over, and just as she flipped around to the other side of the flat thin earth, saw another ship, with the same red flags, departing around the distant other-edge to the side from where she’d just come. And she sailed and sailed, for a lifetime she sailed, and only caught glimpses of the other ship as she moved over the edges of worlds. And always the ship was a mirror of hers, and always she thought she sailed that other ship also, a girl not like her but who was her, and always she wanted to know that girl, so she sailed and searched and only ever knew that girl as tails of red cloth against a vast and incoherent blue.
I quickly became obsessed with origins and how the world had come to be. Had the team of 50 Amish men constructed not only the museum but the entire perfect town? Or perhaps it had been the priests in white robes who built this place just to watch those of us who returned wander through it, confused. I was trapped inside some giant experiment, the motivations and goals of which grew more and more unclear. These Shipshewana vistas were sets built from the blueprints of repressed memories and pre-uterine dreams. I felt I could walk and walk and walk and when I finally reached the horizon, puncture the paper sky with my fist.
My theory evolved. The truth is I wasn’t crazy at all. I was not broken. I was not fundamentally flawed. I had never had sin in my heart because I had never, to begin with, believed in such sin. I did not, despite the most profound and guilty of compulsions, need to return to a supposed home where I’d never, in fact, lived.
I’d been having dreams. Just the very night before: darkness, aloneness, a big black panther with black cat eyes exhaling hot on my skull and neck. My entire head could easily fit in its mouth.
Surely the animal can be reasonable, I thought. Surely.
I was aware of the hard white bones in its jaws, of the red fascia and sinew covering these, of its strength. Its presence suspended me within an endless paralytic desperation. Then I began to sob.
I awoke in a shallow pool of perfect terror and knew: I will die. I knew: that will be the end.
I panted and stared at the dark room. I floated in this knowingness until I sank down into a hopeless kind of sleep.
The next morning I was hungover from death. What was I trying to prove? Who was I trying to be?
Pretending. Something that gets at the motivations of the narrator herself. That the entire endeavor is a ruse in that she’s not trying to figure something out but to cover it up. Perhaps the entire persona is put on. Can she possibly get away with this?
At the museum, I was eager for history to come to life before my very eyes. I was led through constructed sets that were supposed to make me feel as if I were in places of holiness. I saw stained-glass windows and a red barn wall with hay falling from an open loft. The dungeon contained a pit with a mannequin dressed in rags and a Bible sewn to its hands. Real torture devices loomed everywhere.
I became suspicious of absolute rules governing space and time as I walked through rooms and touched glass boxes containing relics of my abandoned childhood: wooden toys built for godly play, a jar of peaches I’d filled years ago with my small hands. I picked up a telephone and was connected to the singing at my grandmother’s funeral, foreign, with the melody of a moan. I passed the hull of a great ship and then bent beneath its deck, examining the graffitied walls. Martin Kintig, 1693, a pair of crosses, Noah, and vagina were chalked there, evidence that my mounting theories of simultaneity and anachronism would prove true.
Uncle insisted I enter a room in which the floor vibrated with catastrophes and he could summon the wind at will. My teeth buzzed inside my mouth, and my hair blew up around my head. Natural disasters flashed on the wall, and then happy Mennonite women offered injured natives refreshing drinks. Men raised houses from the ground with their bare hands.
Finally, Uncle shut me in the church display to contemplate what I had learned. In the pew, I waited, and then God descended from speakers. Lights flared and dimmed in coordination with His recorded words. The church perfectly built itself so as to evoke in me memories of the first church. But instead all I could think of was my grandmother’s cold face and her body laid out in this very room, or a copy of it, years ago. Beneath the fields of Shipshewana, Amish men grew their long white beards longer and pulled tight wraps of sod against the chill of the dirt. The women kneaded the dirt with their hands. Were I to walk over their graves, they would roll.
I saw myself moving over vast oceans of pure green, the earth churning beneath my feet. Soon, pale fingers sprouted through the dark earth, and before long whole fields grew with hands. I walked for seasons, watching their wrists mature into strong arms. The tops of their white heads formed ghostly islands in the dirt. They grew, and their arms waved like wheat, and I could see their heads strain against the dirt. Soon, faces appeared, and they opened their eyes as if from sleep. The fields at night glowed white with flesh, and their mouths opened and closed to catch the wind. This would be my harvest, I said. This would be my good work. In the morning, I went to the fields and took their hands. I pulled them to their feet. The God voice in the speakers suggested prayer, but instead I wandered among the dead of the land. I felt they had answers, but they would not speak.
After my moment of silence in the fake church, I informed Uncle of the evidence I’d uncovered regarding convergence and simultaneity and how one might go about approaching unity, but he accused me of being the one to pen vagina on the ship’s wall. He was convinced I would fabricate data regarding how the present changes the past and how unholy and holy commiserate. I protested, but he was already gone to instruct the ship wall be washed clean of all suspicious markings.
I perused the gift shop one last time until I found the large ruby jewel of raspberry jam glistening in its jar, which I purchased with regards. I also considered the book Plain and Amish: An Alternative to Modern Pessimism, but felt my pessimism was, to large and small extents, what propelled me, and I did not want to jeopardize what little bit of motivation I still had left.
From The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School, edited by Steven Church (Outpost19, 2018).