A Little Fish in a Mennonite Sea: Shirley Hershey Showalter

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 Hershey Showalter
Shirley Hershey Showalter

 

 

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.

 

Pigtails
Shirley in the Third Grade

 

 

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.

 

Dual
Grade Five: Shirley on the left and Carol on the right

 

 

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.

 

Blush_frontcover copy

 

 

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.

Find her at her website: www.shirleyshowalter.com;
her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ShirleyHersheyShowalter
and on Twitter https://twitter.com/shirleyhs

 

****

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.”

26 Responses

  1. […] 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. Read more. […]

  2. KM Huber
    | Reply

    “Until six years old, I was a fish.” What a magnificent sentence. Janet, thank you for introducing us to this writer; Shirley, I am looking forward to reading your memoir. Wonderful, engaging post.
    Karen

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Making a new connection is the best blessing of guest posting. Thanks, KM, for your response to the post, and I would love having you as a reader of Blush also.

      Now I’m off to explore what you are doing and saying!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Karen,

      I’m so glad you and Shirley have met. It’s just what I’ve hoped would happen here. And I will add, I loved the line in your recent blog, “Stories are illustrative, sometimes metaphorical, but always they enrich our lives with what is possible.” So true.
      I’m honored you keep coming back, Karen.

  3. Richard Gilbert
    | Reply

    Shirley, I loved your memoir and I love your fresh, metaphoric take on it here. Especially this:

    “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.”

    Perfect. Love the way you employ DFW’s great speech. To paraphrase Archie MacLeish, out of the water of words you’ve made wine—poetry.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Greetings Richard, and welcome. I love that you’ve quoted Archibald MacLeish, one of my favorite poets since high school. And, thanks to Shirley’s post here this morning, I’ve visited your blog and found a wealth of interesting book reviews for me to wander among. Thanks for that. Janet

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Richard, thanks much for those kind words. And, speaking of metaphor, I encourage other readers to click on your current blog post for a very interesting conversation about metaphor there right now!

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I can picture both the fish and the pond Shirley was swimming in as I grew up Mennonite in Lancaster County just as Shirley did. However, I took a leap and jumped into a different pond, Christian but not Mennonite–fancy, not plain.

    Richard’s paraphrase by Archibald MacLeish is choice. I might add one by Virginia Woolf: Language is wine upon the lips. Shirley has managed to turn her experience by the pond of her youth into vintage.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hi Marian,
      It would be fascinating for me to learn how many of my friends have jumped from one pond or another. Certainly at one phase of our life (adolescence) it is our job to jump, at least for a bit. I certainly did. Someday, I will write about it.
      I loved, btw, the picture on your recent blog, “Music is what feelings sound like.” I’ve copied it; must use it somehow. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      You seem to be full of wonderful quotes today, Marian. I love how you are gathering up your gems under the rubric of Purple Passages. And I love the fact that you are the Rainbow Trout, shining in the sunshine, as you jump from pond to pond.

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post and agree with KM Huber, “Until six years old, I was a fish” is a magnificent, engaging, and captivating sentence!

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Thank you, Laurie. It was David Foster Wallace’s story that took me to that image. Wonderful how that process works. I’m honored because I respect your own language skills so much.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hello Laurie. And welcome. I see we are now following each other on Twitter. I love how the circle grows.

  6. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Oh, Shirley, how I love your metaphorical storytelling. It is so rich and enjoyable. Behind that little fish is a wealth of wisdom and insight that strikes a universal chord about the human experience of striking out in independence while honoring our roots. Your memoir, BLUSH, is a gift to all of us.

    Thanks for featuring Shirley as your guest, Janet. You are gathering a lovely community here. I’m looking forward to reading your Peace Corps memoir.

    Blessing to both of you,

    Kathy
    http://krpooler.com

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Hello Kathy. Always good to welcome you. I’ll take this opportunity to mention that you’ll be my guest blogger in February and I’m looking forward to the conversation then as well.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Thank you, Kathy. I so appreciate the support and encouragement you have given me. I’m not surprised that Janet has snagged you for another guest post and look forward to reading it.

  7. Carol Bodensteiner
    | Reply

    A thought-provoking look at a major theme in your memoir, Shirley. As with so many books I read, BLUSH is one to return to for deeper understanding on many levels. Well done.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      So glad you have found BLUSH helpful in your own writing life, Carol. You are a learner at heart and will find something of value in every book and every experience. I admire that. And thanks for the compliment on the post.

  8. Melodie davis
    | Reply

    This is truly how it was but I never thought of it that way before. Good insight.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Hi, Melodie. Great to see you here. Glad you found both of us. Janet has amazing stories to tell.

  9. Janet
    | Reply

    Hello all, particularly Carol and Melodie, our two most recent posters (now there’s a new take on a familiar word). I’ve been AWOL today and want to explain I’ve been unable to connect most of the day as I’ve been traveling (car) from Ohio’s Grandma-land to Virginia and “the house that will not sell.” I’ll have the same situation tomorrow too. Poor scheduling on my part, it appears.

    Carol, it’s good to find you here; please have a look around and make yourself comfortable. You too will be joining us again as a guest blogger in a few months, hopefully timed about the time your new book comes out. I’m enjoying the brief temptations you offer us on your blog, tied in with the theme of your upcoming novel.

    And Melodie, pleased to meet you, as my British-trained English teachers in Kazakhstan always said. I can’t say it any longer without thinking of them. Welcome. I enjoyed your recent blog post on the little shed for books, particularly how you said, “Books can help you travel the world—or just inside the marvelous imagination of another writer or illustrator. … Your mind can be opened to new experiences, thoughts, places, dreams.”

    Indeed.

  10. Sherrey Meyer
    | Reply

    Shirley, you know I loved your memoir and the stories of your Mennonite growing up. But truly, I never knew there was “Mennonite water.” What an amazing analogy between your thoughts as a girl and the commencement address at Kenyon. Somehow, like Janet, I didn’t realize you had a mini-Peace Corps experience either. It seems with each sharing we memoirists do we learn something new about one another. Thanks for sharing once again the stories of your life.

    Janet, thanks for hosting such a special guest. I suppose we’re all in love with Shirley Showalter, aren’t we? What’s not to love? Magical storyteller, writer with a wonderful way with words, and one always willing to share again and again.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Sherrey, Welcome back. Good to see you.
      I’m starting to see “the water I swim in” more clearly, thanks to Shirley. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sherrey. I resonate with the point about learning new things with each post of my wonderful memoirist friends. I feel the same way about you! Thanks for the lovely comment.

  11. Tina Fariss Barbour
    | Reply

    Shirley, this is beautiful! I love how you describe your “little fish in a different sea” experience. You’ve brought to mind my own experiences with what I used to call “culture shock.” Now I recognize that though I struggled for a while, I eventually learned to know and understand myself and others so much better.

  12. […] Shirley Showalter […]

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