This week I’m pleased to have Shirley Showalter here to share her story.
I first met Shirley from afar. I’d jumped into the social media whirl as I finished my memoir and was searching for connections. At Shirley’s website I found a pot of gold. Then, I began noticing she was commenting on a few of the blogs I was beginning to follow and I liked her comments. I saw her often among the commenters on Kathy Pooler’s Memoir Writer’s Journey. Finally, at one of the forum’s on Goodreads, we connected. Her first memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, came out in September. You can read my Goodreads review of it here.
Shirley, the floor is yours.
Until I was six years old, I was a fish.
Actually, I was like the fish David Foster Wallace described in his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
I would not have said “hell.” I was, after all, a Mennonite kid growing up on a dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We worked on the farm from sun up to sun down. Not only did we not swear, we didn’t drink, smoke (well, my father’s cigars were tolerated, but only when he smoked them outdoors), dance, go to movies, or own a television set. The time: America in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Was this an unusual life? Not to my knowledge. Family and church were my life, and almost everyone I knew was Mennonite.
That is, until I went to school. That’s when I began to notice the water I was swimming in: Mennonite water.
My life was much more like Little House on the Prairie than I Love Lucy. When the other kids spent their playground time talking about and acting out episodes and commercials from television, I realized that my life was vastly different from theirs.
I wouldn’t have names for this feeling until much later. In the meantime, I was a fish, learning about the sea. Here’s how I describe it in my memoir Blush:
From third to sixth grade, I was engaged in an internal battle that sometimes felt like life or death. I was trying to find my place in the world, and I wasn’t sure what it was—or even if there was one. My teachers in the early grades had taught me kindly and well, but they had not seen in me what I believed I was capable of, even though I didn’t know what that was.
About half the class at Fairland Elementary had connections to “plain” backgrounds, either Mennonite or Church of the Brethren. Unlike the Lutherans and Methodists in the class, we Mennonites and Brethren had not been baptized as babies. Carol Miller was a precocious plain girl. She had stood or raised her hand in a revival meeting at her church at age eight. As a result, she had already been dunked in the baptismal method her church required. . . .
Most importantly, Carol now came to school with her hair pulled straight back from her face, fixed into a bun at the base of her neck, wearing the symbol of her submission to the church and to God: a white prayer covering smaller than an Amish cap with strings but large enough to cover the bun and half her head (See photo below. Carol is on the right. I am on the left). Carol’s soul had been saved. Now she was protected by God, Jesus, her church, and the angels to lead a holy life of separation from the world. Her long hair, bun, and covering reminded her and the rest of us that she was, by her early declaration, a follower of Jesus, saved by his blood on the cross. But the covering on her small head just reminded me that all the Mennonites in my life wanted to see one of those coverings on my own head. It was not a comfortable thought.
The photo shows that by fifth grade, when I had three siblings at home instead of one, my mother was no longer curling my hair, braiding it, or adding bows and ribbons. I had a homemade haircut and was starting to let my hair grow long. I was not aware of the subtle signs, but I was being prepared to become plain—and soon.
Becoming plain, joining the Mennonite Church, was the biggest issue of my childhood. Would I join the subculture I was born into, or would I refuse, and break the hearts of my parents and all who had loved me when I was just a fish, swimming happily in Mennonite waters?
If you want to know how I resolved this dilemma, please read my book.
As I put on the lens of the academic leader I later became, I see that my struggles as a child to be both independent and connected are similar to the struggles of all people in all cultures. Some people swim contentedly in the sea they were born into. Some leap like salmon and plunge upstream or even jump into a different pond. And some keep following their own stream to the place where it joins the ocean.
During the course of my teaching career at Goshen College, I lived in Haiti and then in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, for more than a year total. My husband and I organized the living-learning environment of students, finding them homes and service assignments a little like a mini Peace Corps experience. I saw my students grapple with issues of cultures/subcultures/change and continuity. I wrestled with the complexities of culture with them.
Underneath the complexity, however, I felt calm. The little fish I used to be assured me that the water was fine. I could just jump in, get to know it, and surface again. If I opened my eyes wider, I could see the other fish and the other seas and trust that it was good.
Shirley Hershey Showalter, author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, grew up on a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, dairy farm and went on to become a professor and then college president and foundation executive.
Thanks so much, Shirley. I didn’t realize you’d had a “mini Peace Corps experience.” Good for you. I’m going to have to get you back here to tell us more about those years “wrestling with the complexities of culture.”