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Postcard from the End of America: Carlisle, PA

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Invited to give a reading at Dickinson College, I came to Carlisle, a town of 19,000 people 30 miles from Harrisburg. Arriving by train, I passed Amish country and saw plows being pulled by horses. On extremely long clotheslines, single-colored clothes fluttered in the wintry wind. Rising high and lithographed against the pale sky, they resembled subdued prayer flags. A white bearded man under a straw hat waved. Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Middletown. Had I sat on the opposite side, I would have been browbeaten by the looming nuclear reactors of Three Miles Island.

I have always been struck by how calm and sane Amish children look. On another occasion in Harrisburg, I marveled at the serene, nearly beatific way an Amish teenaged girl prepared my sandwich. Each movement was economic yet unharried, and she even smiled, ever so subtly, at the tomato, lettuce, onion and roast beef. She was at one with the fragrant white bread. If you travel by train often, you will have many opportunities to observe Amish families, for they don't fly. With their emphases on God, family and community, they're traditional in every way, and you can even call them reactionary for their resistance to progress. Indifferent to this fleeting mania that's exhausted the earth and brought humanity to the brink of extinction, the Amish are content to come, till the field and lie beneath, and though they have their dogmas, they don't seek to impose their ways on you.

No subscribers to any global system, the Amish believe that each community should create its own mores and regulate itself. It's fair to say, though, that they have only survived thanks to the forbearance and mercy of the state, for this state can suddenly decide to press gang them into a preemptive war, outlaw their horse and buggies or even ban them from selling unpasteurized milk, the last of which has happened several times recently. If the French can criminalize the burqa, then perhaps Amish suspenders are an intolerable threat to public order? Never underestimate the perversity of the state. Communist governments hounded feminine clothes, shoes, cosmetics and even hairstyles out of existence.

The Amish, then, can be deformed or even snuffed out at any moment, as has happened already to many similar communities worldwide. Should the Amish way of life become contagious, the state will certainly see them as a cancer. Immune to all propaganda, they are also the worst consumers. As the state unravels, however, the independence, resilience, simplicity and sanity of the Amish should serve as a model for the rest of us deranged Americans. There are those who point to the failings of individual Amish as evidence that their wholesome image is a fraud, but domestic violence, incest, drug use and cruelty to animals can be found within any community. The Amish's biggest flaw, I think, is their principled abstention from the use of force in all situations, for that can only lead to their doom and martyrdom.

Dickinson had sent a car to pick me up, and during the 30-minute drive to Carlisle, I had a most enjoyable chat with its driver, Melanie. In her early 50's, Melanie had gotten a bachelor's in American Studies from Dickinson and a master's from the University of Maryland. She then worked at Planned Parenthood and another nonprofit that helped battered women, "I thought I would be among feminists, but they weren't really feminists, and that's why I became a massage therapist. I did that for 19 years."

"Why did you quit?"

"Oh, the stress of it became too much, and I also had some health issues. I like this job driving for the college because it's very flexible. My partner teaches Judaism and Hebrew at the school. She's also a writer."

"What does she write?"

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"Novels and poems. She's only had a few poems translated into English. She writes in Hebrew."

Melanie and her partner go to Israel twice a year, "My dad loves my partner and loves Israel. When I first got involved with my partner, my dad said, 'Any time you want to go to Israel, I'll pay for your ticket,' but after my fifth trip within three years, my dad told me, 'I didn't know you were going to commute to Israel!'"

Melanie's dad is also a writer. "One of his books is called Stalking the Antichrists."

"Wow, that sounds cool. Who are the antichrists?"

"American Presidents."

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"I'm not going to argue with that!" We both laughed. "But which presidents?"

"Mostly recent ones."

"What about the early ones? What about George Washington?"

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Linh Dinh is tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America . He is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, (more...)
 

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