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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

06 June 2007

Ruminations on rumspringa, or “Duh!”

One of the speculative fiction writer’s hardest tasks is to free herself of cultural blinders that lead her to view the future, the past, and potential alien cultures through the lens of modern American values.

No one wants to be like the Hanna-Barbera team that produced The Jetsons. The women’s movement was brewing, the civil rights movement was stewing, yet in the imagined future lived by the Jetson family, subservient women stayed home (even though machines handled the housework), and only white people played a role in society. It was not a look forward at all, but rather a nostalgic projection of 1950s values and behaviors that were already becoming obsolete.

Writers still fight with this problem—and lose. Novels set in the Middle Ages sometimes are bewilderingly free of the everyday rituals and reminders of religion that dominated those times. Novels set in the far future or in alien galaxies too often graft, Frankenstein-like, contemporary American mores and social patterns onto societies whose history could not have produced them.

I try to keep my anthropological training in mind when writing speculative fiction. Other human societies, past and present, offer a cornucopia of philosophies, religious practices, taboos, diet beliefs, codes of honor, styles of dress, divisions of labor, and sex roles for the writer to feast on when birthing a world.

I realized recently, though, that contemporary America is not completely sterile as an inspiration for worldbuilding. My eye-opener was Rumspringa: To Be Or Not To Be Amish by nonfiction writer Tom Shachtman. The book focuses on the custom of rumspringa (“running around”) practiced by the Old Order Amish, the strictest of the anabaptist sects in the United States.

After Old Order Amish teens leave school at 14, they are allowed some years of freedom in the world before they must decide whether to be baptized and join the Amish church and live under all its rules. The Old Order Amish believe a person cannot make this decision without knowing what they are giving up. Rumspringa is a time of exploration during which teens may take jobs in the outside world, smoke, drink, drive, dress “English,” wear make-up, own cars and CD players and cell phones, and spend time with people of the opposite sex without adult chaperones.

As you might guess, when these innocents are set free from the tight restrictions of Amish life into the alien world of American teenagerhood, many tumble headfirst into a wild life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The book chronicles the adventures and confusion of several teens as they struggle to choose the course of the rest of their lives, sometimes while burdened by alcoholism or drug addictions or love for someone non-Amish.

Over the course of the book, one learns quite a bit about the Amish perspective on life—what is moral, what a desirable life is, how decisions should be made, how society should be ordered, the value of living apart from the wider world—as well as what can befall a stranger in a strange land. What struck me hard was that a society that had strict rules covering every aspect of life down to the number of straight pins one could use to keep one's blouse closed allowed teens a brief respite from all of these rules. It's an idea I've never seen explored in fiction, even though many fantasy books are coming-of-age stories.

I found Rumspringa a fascinating book that gave me an inside look at a way of life in some ways opposite the one I live in New Orleans. Clearly, I don’t need to look far away in distance or time to find intriguing ideas for stories; America has plenty of groups with distinct and interesting subcultures—something an anthropologist should have known. Duh!


Charles Gramlich said...

I only recently heard about this practice by the old order Amish and was fascinated too. A very forethinking attitude from a group that are often labeled old fashioned. I will have to check out this book.

You're right, there is much of worth in our own mixed and mongrel culture that could be of use in world building. Good post.

Lisa said...

This practice reminds me of a story I heard on This American Life a couple of years ago. A Hasidic Jew from Williamsburg, NY somehow met a guy in a rock band and ended up going to Yeshiva by day and sneaking out to play rock and roll with the stage name Curly Oxide, by night. After a year, he ended up leaving the band and returning to the Hasidic lifestyle -- which meant that he couldn't be in contact with his non-Hasidic friends anymore. The story was so compelling that people continue to try to communicate with Chaim and want to make a movie of the story. I would never have imagined you could put a genie like that back in the bottle, but here are examples from two cultures that show you can. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Hi Shauna,
I have come here for the first time by clicking a link through Lisa's blog.
Really enjoyed your post.

cs harris said...

I've been fascinated by this aspect of the Amish ever since I read my sister's THE OUTSIDER (they cut that subplot from the Naomi Watt's movie). How many American parents would willingly and deliberately give their kids that kind of freedom to experiment and choose?

Interesting thoughts, too, about projecting American attitudes into the future. I complain about it constantly in historical fiction, but never considered that the same issues are a problem in future/alien settings as well. Good post.

Shauna Roberts said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments.

CHARLES, I agree with you that the idea that young people should know what they're giving up by staying Amish is a good one. And it works in that almost everyone raised Amish eventually does join the church. I was disturbed, however, that none of the kids toured Europe or climbed the Rockies or read great books or worked as a roadie for a rock band. The boys generally did manual labor and the girls took boring minimum-wage jobs (because of their young age, lack of education, and location in small towns). Then on weekends they'd party hard. Of the pizza of modern life, these kids sampled only a small hard chunk of burnt crust before choosing the Amish way of life.

LISA, what a great story about Curly Oxide. I did a quick Google search and it appears that a movie may indeed be in production, with Tina Fey as one of the producers. Thanks for letting me know about him; I'm going to do some more reading when I have a chance. He sounds like a fascinating guy.

REALITY, thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

CS, my favorite anachronism in historical books and movies is the white wedding dress. It sometimes seems almost no one bothers to research wedding wear before writing a wedding scene. Thanks for stopping by.

Sphinx Ink said...

I read this entry a couple of weeks ago, but didn't take time to comment then. I'm coming back to comment now, because I have thought about getting the book RUMSPRINGA and am glad to have your recommendation. I've always been fascinated by the Amish way of life--the self-denial and devotion to ideals are so great, given the many temptations of the outside culture. Despite the limitations of Amish culture, it speaks well that they encourage their children to try the forbidden before they commit their lives to the religion.

(Of course, the ostracism imposed on those who decide not to return to the Amish way probably is a big factor in so many deciding to stay Amish. It would be pretty hard never to be allowed any contact with family or lifelong friends if one decides to stay in the outside world.)

If you recall the incident a year or so ago, in which a man shot up an Amish school and killed a number of the children, I thought the Amish truly lived their religion in their response: they forgave the gunman (who had killed himself, too), and offered sympathy and comfort to his widow and family. I admire the ability of those who lost their children to reach out in kindness and love.

Shauna Roberts said...

SPHINX INK, ostracism is only imposed on those who join the church and THEN decide to leave for the outside world. Teens who choose the outside world haven't broken any commitment and are free to associate with their families and friends. So that situation is less harsh than you thought.

I too admired the Amish response to the schoolhouse attack. Here in New Orleans, the price of retribution on society is so clearly seen--we would have almost no murders if people practiced forgiveness instead of revenge.

Still, the Amish life is not suited to those with great talents or great dreams or great intellect. It stifles all those traits by discouraging anyone from doing anything to stick out or "put on airs." It's also very hard on women. My mother came from a Pennsylvania Dutch family (Dunker, not Amish), and I can't recall her ever saying anything good about the lifestyle. She was not a feminist—in fact, I think she opposed feminism—but she was bitter about the treatment of women in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture.