Flying the Coop – Leaving Mennonite Land

  

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was 
more painful than the risk it took to blossomAnais Nin

Marian JourneyMy guest this week is Marian Longenecker Beaman, who looks back at her decision to step outside of her comfort zone and leave the Mennonite community in which she was raised.

A prayer covering hugs my head capped by two circles of interlocking dark-brown braids. I chafe in a blue wool dress with a cape that masks my womanly curves. Standing in front of my dresser mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite School where I teach, the truth dawns:

Me: I can’t live the rest of my life looking like this!

Other Self: Then come with me.

Me: But what would my parents say?

Other Self: They aren’t living your life.

Me: Dean Noah Good wants me to stay. He says he thinks it is God’s will for me.

Other Self: How can he know? He is not God. 

Starting a [new life] demands a conscious falling through the window,
a journey through the looking-glass — Madeleine l’Engle

I’ve had this dialogue before, but the urge to change is growing stronger. One possibility: My church endorses a Teacher’s Abroad Program (TAP). I’ll sign up for that. Apply for Western Europe, maybe Germany or Switzerland, land of my ancestry. Maybe I will meet a nice German boy. I’ll teach English, learn German, have a family–and never have to wear my constricting Mennonite garb again. 

I can escape!

But one enchanted evening I meet Cliff, on Christmas break from college and staying with my next door neighbor.  I am his blind date. One week into our friendship, he has drawn a portrait of me, written poetry about me, presented me with two hand-made cards, and given me a corsage of pink carnations. He says he is falling in “like” whatever that means. It feels more like true love to me.

Cliff (the Catalyst) suggests I find a school away from my Mennonite culture. Okay, it could be a private Christian school, just not a Mennonite one. Soon I apply to Charlotte Christian School.  The phone interview is embarrassing on both ends. I can’t understand the board member’s southern drawl, and he can’t decipher my lilting Pennsylvania dialect. Overly polite, we ask, “Will you repeat that please?” Nevertheless, I am asked to come down to Charlotte, NC for a face-to-face interview.

The school can afford to pay only bus fare, so I mount the Greyhound for the 14-hour trip with my Baum’s bologna sack lunch and suitcase, a square brown thing with metal snaps. It’s late May so it gets hotter as we head farther south, but at least I am not wearing a cape dress. Before the trip, I boldly shed my prayer cap too, though braids still hug my head. A search committee member in Charlotte says, “You come highly recommended from Lancaster Mennonite School.” (What? Dean Good approves of my leaving LMS and mingling with Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists—maybe even Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake.)

I am offered the job and take it. Even with the meager salary of $4,200, there are fringe benefits: I could understandably leave my family and be closer to my boyfriend Cliff (now teaching in Florida). My family has mixed feelings about the move, but after all I am 25 years old. My mother says finally, “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite.”

My dad, maybe worried that I’ll end up an old maid, even helps me pick out a car. In the 1980s movie, Marty’s time machine is a DeLorean, thrusting him “Back to the Future” where he gets stuck in the past. My time machine is a 1960s Valiant that propels me forward from Mennonite farmland in Pennsylvania to Billy Graham country in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The obliging officials at Charlotte Christian School recommend a place to live in a neighborhood of elegant Southern ladies. Their charm is most enchanting (How ya’ll doin’? the plural directed to just me) and I take up residence with two fancy young women who roll their hair at night for flip hairdos by day. 

By the end of the school year, I am wearing my first ever piece of jewelry, a diamond engagement ring, which “plain” Grandma Longenecker beholds with an ashen face, her eyes communicating betrayal of my heritage and family values. Nevertheless, the ring never leaves my finger. And I get brave enough to cut my hair.

That’s the way things come clear.  All of a sudden.  And then you realize 
how obvious they have been all along — 
Madeleine l’Engle

Yes, standing in front of that mirror as Sister Longenecker at Lancaster Mennonite school in Pennsylvania, the truth dawns. It had been obvious all along. Why hadn’t I seen it before?

 

Marian - journey #2Marian Beaman’s life has been characterized by re-invention: Pennsylvania Mennonite girl moves to Florida to become traveling artist’s wife, then English professor with credits in the Journal of the Forum on Public Policy published by Oxford University Press. Along with her work as a community activist leading a neighborhood to take on a Wal-Mart expansion, she is a writer and blogger in this second phase of her career. Fitness training and Pilates classes have become a metaphor for her mind-flexing experience as a writer, mining stories from her past along with reflections on current events. 

Facebook: www.facebook/marian.beaman/

Twitter: www.twitter.com/martabeaman

Website: http://plainandfancygirl.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pub/marian-beaman/73/3a2/660

 

This guest blog continues the discussion on issues relevant to themes in my forthcoming novel, A Fitting Place.  If you’d like to contribute to the discussion, please contact me here.

While I am hosting Marian Beaman, my essay on the writing process is being  hosted by Linda Austin on her lovely website, Moonbridge Books.  Linda, who encourages life writing, wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, her mother’s memoir of life in Japan around WWII, and Poems That Come to Mind, about the caregiving journey.

Next Monday’s contribution to the blog hop on the writing process will come from Sharon Lippincott on her website. Sharon, who began teaching lifestory and memoir workshops in 1999, is the author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing and four other books. Her latest volume, Adventures of a Chilehead: A Mini-Memoir with Recipes was released in December last year.

 

Comments

  1. Chafing, a good word to describe so many who have grown up plain. I never wore a cape nor did I teach at a school like LMS but the heart of this journey fits many of us. And Marian, your Charlotte connections are interesting too (two of my daughters currently live there). Thanks for sharing and good to know about this blog!

    • Thanks, Melodie. I think we are learning about parallel aspects of our lives and some that deviate a little. I am glad you discovered Mary’s blog today. She wrote a memoir Sailing Down the Moonbeam some time ago, but is about to launch a work of fiction. You can check out her about-to-be-released book on this website.

      I lived on Middleton Drive in Charlotte, very close to Queens College. Thanks again for the comment.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Melodie … thanks so much for visiting … I agree you don’t have to grow up in a Mennonite community to experience the struggle of breaking free. Marian has captured a universal experience in her lovely piece.

  2. I did not grow up in a Mennonite community, but I spent several years in one deep East Texas one. I spent wonderful childhood years there, but I was always aware that the environment was confining for my parents. When the time came to move from there, and we settled in a “space” community, then I learned how confining that community had been. Your story is bold and brave as I moved with my family, you did it alone. Wow!

    • At the time, I did not feel bold and brave; I was just so eager to experience more. The Anais Nin quote says it best! While I appreciate my heritage, I needed then to experience a larger world. You have some understanding of this interesting culture during your own childhood. I was not aware of Mennonites living in East Texas. Thanks for chiming in, Georgette.

      • Mary Gottschalk says

        As I read Georgette’s comment and Marian response, it strikes me that she had more support than many who try to escape. Her mother’s comment “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite” speaks to an openness of mind that many ostensible more liberal communities don’t have.

  3. Every time Marian tells the story, I see new aspects of it. This time I found the intertwined accents amusing. Perhaps it takes a Mennonite with too many restrictions and yet plenty of chutzpah would see the South and “Billy Graham country” as liberating. But that only goes to show that one person’s “coop” is another person’s blue sky. When true love is involved, freedom consists of choosing together how to transform coops into nests and how and when to fly from one nest for another.

    The interspersed quotes fit perfectly!

    Thanks, Mary, for inviting Marian to tell this story.

    • As a Mennonite yourself, and also one who has experienced the blue sky of a larger world, your insights are unique and always enlightening. Nevertheless, we are both farm girls and enjoy playing with apt words for the theme today: coops and nests.

      Your replies always make me think. Thanks, Shirley!

    • Amen, Shirley. “Freedom consists of … choosing … how and when to fly.” How precious is our freedom.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Beautifully said, Shirley. Thanks for those wise words.

  4. Marian, you tell your story so well! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to step out and carve your own path. How wonderful to be able to look back and reexamine what Sister Longenecker was feeling when she was on the cusp of such great change and know that it would all turn out as it should in the end.

    Mary, thank you for featuring Marian’s post today.

    • As the saying goes, Life is lived forward and understood in reverse. I guess that is true of all of us. It’s nice to hear from Canada today. Thanks, Linda.

      • Mary Gottschalk says

        Linda … I agree that Marian has told her story well, so that we could experience her flight to freedom with her. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Marian – I got GOOSEBUMPS reading this brief snippet! If you were a nun, I’d say you know how to rock a habit. As a Mennonite, you surely know how to rock a bonnet (you catch my drift).

    I loved reading, “My mother says finally, “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite.” Clearly, a wise woman. And clearly, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree…

    • If you got goosebumps, I got laughs reading your quips on rocking habits and bonnets. I always smile when I read your comments. Thanks, too, for the tweet, Laurie.

      • Mary Gottschalk says

        Laurie … having grown up a Catholic, I never heard the expression “rock a habit” although I knew lots of them who did … and quite a few who rocked right out of the nunnery.

  6. What a fascinating story and life!

  7. What a rich and engaging story, Marian! You strike right at the heart any 25-year- old woman’s desire to find her own way in the world. Brava to you for being true to yourself and sharing your journey with us. And your parents finally accepted: “I’d rather have a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite.” Your quotes are great too. Anaias Nin’s is my favorite. Thanks for featuring Marian, Mary. I can’t wait to dig into your novel, THE FITTING PLACE. It’s next on my list! Lovely post.

    • That’s another nice thing about guest blogs. Many of my readers are introduced to other fine writers. But I think Mary and you are already acquainted. Right?

      Kathy, thanks for noticing the quotes today. I notice all the great quotes you feature every week alongside reviews and tips on your website. I even store some away for future reference.

  8. Oh Marian, so many quotabels here. I’ve picked your ending: “It had been obvious all along. Why hadn’t I seen it before?” because I resonate so well with it. I had no idea that ah ha was so universally sudden; here I’d assumed it was my take. I also enjoyed your quip: and mingling with Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists—maybe even Episcopalians, for heaven’s sake. Reminded me of the old joke, “This church can seat 200 Methodists, but 400 Baptists.” Why? “Because Baptists are so much narrower.” ( I can tell that one because I’m out of the Conservative Baptist wing myself). I’m fascinated by your story. Some day we must compare notes.

  9. Thank you, Janet. I know you mostly through your adventures in teaching on the Kazakh Steppe via your blog. Now I know something more about your background. Interestingly, though I have long ago left the outer trappings of the Mennonite life, my faith is still strong–different and better, I believe.

    Yes, we must compare notes sometime.

  10. Marian, delightful! Absolutely delightful! I didn’t grow up Mennonite but in a matriarchally strong home life, the rules were strict and were to be followed stringently. My only escape was to go away to college and then get married. Neither of which made me any happier, only more miserable. I was 34 before the change I needed in my life came along. His name is Bob. I think many of us go through similar painful desires and needs for changing the way we perceive ourselves, either with or without the mirror. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. You are quite the storyteller, and I see your favorite artist has been at work again! My regards to Cliff.

    • You make me realize, Sherrey, that I mimicked Alice in Wonderland two ways: I looked into the mirror and tumbled down the rabbit hole in the course of my adventure . . . leaving my comfort zone as you have done.

      I am happy Bob is on the mend. You are fortunate to have each other. Yes, I will give your regards to Cliff. He is currently working on a dragon with a gift in its mouth for a post on Saturday.

      It’s good to see your smiling face today on Mary’s blog. And I am so grateful for your encouragement along the way.

  11. Hello Marian,
    I was intrigued by your story and could identify a little, since I grew up in a very religious Catholic family and at age 18 entered a convent. That experience shaped my life for 5+ years.
    Your need to spread your wings and become “yourself” must’ve been quite an internal struggle and moving to North Carolina would’ve required you to really stretch and learn who you were, not to mention the cultural norms & expectations you had to learn. I too left my childhood home state of Calif and moved to Connecticut, so I know a little about that. Sometimes it seemed like another world to me. But those experiences are invaluable, aren’t they?

    • Hello, Kas! — happy to meet you. It seems our changes were both emotional and geographical. Your move from west to east would require huge adjustments just as my moving from north to south, rural to urban. Brava to you. Yes, these experiences are invaluable, the fabric of our stories.

      Have you read The Summer of Yes by Karen Leahy? Her memoir regards her moving from the convent to a larger world too. There is a short review of her book on my blog. Again, thanks for dropping by and commenting.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Kas and Marian … you are both courageous women, all the more because you made some very hard choices at a relatively young age without a lot of support systems in place for you. You both have inspirational journeys. Thanks so much for sharing them.

  12. Wonderful story; I can relate, though my journey has been from Fundamentalism to Reformed, and now it appears I am moving to (wait for it…) a small (not conservative) Mennonite congregation. I love what your mother said, “I’d rather have you be a happy Christian than a sad Mennonite”. As a mother now of children in their early 20s, finding their own faith journeys, I will remember that.

    • Like you, apparently, I still hold to the biblical beliefs of the Mennonites (salvation by faith alone, for instance) leaving behind the restrictions of outer appearances. One of the most attractive features of the Mennonites is their love for peace. In fact, EMU where I did my under-graduate work now offers peace studies programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels; justice and peace perspectives woven across all disciplines. They are also big on world relief, Mennonite Disaster Service as one example.

      Thank you, Linda for commenting. It’s nice to meet you here on Mary’s website.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Linda … what I love about your comment and Marian’s story is that have a strong faith-based background does not have to trap people into role that do not fit them. There is a Buddhist notion that many roads go to the top of the mountain; they get you to the same place but in different ways.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Was raised into a Mennonite community and attended Lancaster Mennonite High and EMU.
    Then I taught at two Baptist schools. Interesting at all the fashionable women in Jerry Falwell country who shopped at Miller and Rhoads and other expensive stores. I recall no holds bar on applying facial makeup, flaming red or pink fingernails, and expensive clothing the other teachers wore. More divorces and single parent families than in the Mennonite church. This is early 80’s I am talking about.
    I enjoy your blog and will keep reading it.

  14. Donald Stoltzfus says

    How interesting. My 1965 Laurel Wreath is autographed, “Don, Remember to strive,to seek, to find, and not to yield!” Miss Longenecker

    • Hello, Don. After all these years, you still have your high school yearbook with a quote from Tennyson and now an internet connection to your former teacher turned writer. Thank you for commenting! Please visit again.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Donald …. How nice to see “old friends” connect on this website. Thanks for stopping by with such a positive memory!

  15. Judy Berman says

    That decision to leave all you knew is both exhilarating and terrifying. When I left home and got my first apartment, it caused a rift in our family that was not resolved until 2 years later. In that move you and I made, I believe it shapes you … and I’m delighted that it all ended so well for you. Great story, Marian.

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. I picked up on the words “shape” here. You used it as a verb, but I see it also as a noun: my shape (silhouette) changed dramatically from hairstyle to footwear – a head to toe renovation. 🙂

  16. Thank you Marian for posting the link to this particular piece which I so enjoyed and the aptness of the Anaïs Nin quote. I love the quotes by Madeleine l’Engle too. There is always a call somewhere in the depths of our souls to reach and seek further and deeper to know our place in the world and within. We just have to be still to listen to hear the call and say yes – and then the universe supports us.
    I loved all the comments too!

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