Corrections or additions?
These articles by Nicole Plett and Cynthia Yoder were prepared for
the January 21,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
For Fancy Life, a Plain Solution
The restorative power of "going home" is more than just wishful
thinking for Cynthia Yoder. In her newly-published memoir, "Crazy
Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life," she looks back on a depressive
crisis she experienced a decade ago, at age 26, when she dropped out
of graduate school in New York City and made a year’s pilgrimage back
to her family roots in Bally, Pennsylvania, to the home of her
grandparents, Henry and Betts Yoder.
Although her intent, apart from the healing, was to write an oral
history of her grandparents, the project took on considerably more
depth. It became a chronicle of family history and memories, but also
of the author’s path of recovery. Yoder, now in her mid-30s, will read
from and sign her memoir at Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, on Thursday,
January 29, at 7 p.m.
Today, the upbeat, forthright Yoder lives in Princeton Junction with
her husband, Jonathan Shenk, minister at the First Presbyterian Church
of Dutch Neck, and their six-year-old son, Gabriel. She runs a
home-based business as a freelance journalist, business and Web
writer, and public relations consultant. She also leads coaching
programs in memoir writing and oral history collection.
Yoder says the choice of a traditional "crazy quilt" as a metaphor for
her memoir was a natural.
"Quilting is really important in my family," she says. "My
grandmothers and my great-grandmothers made lots of quilts. But a
crazy quilt isn’t like other quilts that follow a distinct pattern.
You take leftover fabric scraps, no matter how small, and you can sew
them in any way you like – it’s almost like an abstract painting. In a
way it gives a quilter a chance to be more expressive with color and
Using this thrifty practice of creating art from discarded scraps,
Yoder built the story of her life crisis and recovery into a readable
and revealing memoir.
"I felt that in my book I was putting together pieces of my life that,
in the beginning, didn’t seem to really fit together. My life growing
up and my life in New York didn’t seem to go together in any fashion.
In my writing I was piecing these parts together in a way that was
true to me. So this is a way for me to use my material, putting it
together to make sense and maybe make it useful to someone else – like
a quilt is useful."
The Yoder family’s roots go all the way back to 1720, when, spurred by
William Penn’s invitation to join a "A Peaceable Kingdom," the family
emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania. Mennonites are an evangelical
Protestant religious denomination, founded in Switzerland and the
Netherlands in the early 16th century; Menno Simons was their first
A product of the Protestant Reformation, they were long persecuted for
their belief that only people able to acknowledge publicly their
belief in Jesus should be baptized and become members of the church.
Strictly adhering to the commandments, Mennonites are pacifists for
their belief that violence is against the "Law of Love" according to
Jesus. Mennonites are often confused with the Amish, a religious group
with a common history, but the Amish grew away from the Mennonite
Persecuted over centuries, moving from one nation-state to another,
the Mennonites kept their beliefs, their culture, and their language,
Low German. In the 19th century, Mennonite farmers left Russia in
great numbers when conscription was instituted for all males. Today
they are a diverse, international group, and the Pennsylvania Dutch
Mennonite culture is, in Yoder’s words, one slice of a greater
"Now you might meet a Mennonite and mistake her for Amish, or you
might meet a Mennonite who has a nose ring, who has shaved his head,
and lives on Avenue D," she says. "Either one, though, would give you
an opinion on peacemaking."
Born in 1966, Yoder was one of two daughters of a Mennonite minister
in the non-Mennonite community of Levittown, Pennsylvania.
Complicating Yoder’s fairly strict upbringing was the fact that she
was not raised within the bosom of the Pennsylvania Dutch community.
Not only was she brought up with significantly different rules than
her school friends – without television, movies, pop music, or dancing
– but the church meeting was actually part of their house. When
Cynthia left home to attend Goshen College, a Mennonite college in
Goshen, Indiana, she broke away from her family bonds.
Although close to her mother, she had grown confused, distant, and
resentful of her father. At Goshen she earned her degree in
communications and also met her husband, the son of a Lancaster
Mennonite family. After graduation in 1989, the couple moved to New
York City, where Yoder began graduate study in comparative literature
at Columbia and became active in the writing and poetry communities.
Yoder’s memoir begins in 1992, her third year in New York, when things
began to happen that caused her to question her power over her sanity.
"I started seeing sinister faces – unwelcome faeries – in squished gum
or smeared dirt on the floor of subway trains," she writes. "I saw
images of my dismembered body flashing in front of me on the platform
while I awaited the train to go to work. I dreaded sleep, because it
was a gateway into a field of gruesome nightmares. And, like many
people who are depressed, I did everything I could to avoid being
The crisis forced her out of graduate school and out of her marriage.
After consultation with friends and family, she left the city to try
to regain her sense of herself. She moved into a basement apartment in
the home of her father’s twin, Roy Yoder, and his wife Sandi. They
lived next door to her grandparents, Henry and Betts Yoder, then in
their 80s. "I set up shop in Bally, Pennsylvania, to tether myself
back to the big fat root of my family."
"My depression was a kind of internal bleeding. A rupture of the
soul," writes Yoder. "While I was still living in New York, and for a
time in Pennsylvania, my dreams were filled with wars, wounded people,
blood." Her depression was debilitating, keeping her from her vocation
as a writer and poet, and rupturing her marriage.
With depression and mental illness in her family, Yoder had fallen
into the assumption that she would always be depressed. Integrating
and restoring the wholeness of her life experience, her recovery was
assisted by therapy by a Mennonite therapist she calls "Melvin, a.k.a.
the angel." a figure she considers vital in her recovery.
Drugs were not used to treat her depression, but her retreat involved
cutting back on alcohol and cigarets and shifting to a healthier diet.
She emphasizes the old truism, "You are what you eat," by stressing
that a healthy diet and exercise are critical to mental well-being.
"At first, I felt very awkward, a withered specimen from New York,
wearing too much black and smoking in stolen moments, late at night,
on the driveway," she writes. "I kept a pint of Wild Turkey I’d
brought from New York in my desk drawer, which I sipped late at night
after everyone else was in bed. When a week passed, and the bottle was
empty, I drove it to the local pizza joint and tossed it into the
dumpster. I didn’t plan on replacing it. I was going to do what one of
my friends called ’52-card pick-up with your life.’ I was going to
change my life, all over again."
For someone suffering from severe depression, such change is easier
said than done. From the vantage point of 10 years’ distance, Yoder
makes a persuasive case for the possibility of incremental change, and
well as a patient and accepting attitude toward the malady.
Gradually, over months that grew into a year, she learned to listen to
her grandparents and draw out their memories and stories. Over time,
she learned that their lives were not as seamless or untroubled as she
had imagined. Henry and Betts Yoder experienced periods of want,
dislocation, factory employment, and loss.
"Now that Henry had begun talking, he was like one of those old Fords
you needed to crank to start – once he got going, he was pretty
reliable," she explains. Meanwhile, her grandmother Betts was also
full of stories and a world-class pie-maker as well.
During her time in Bally, her husband Jonathan spent much of the year
traveling the globe and seeing the world, from Paris to Egypt. In
1993, with further help from their therapist, the pair reunited and
moved back to New York together. Yoder took a full-time job, but also
started piecing together her year’s research with her grandparents,
intending to compile their oral history. Before long, however, she
began an MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, where she started to study the
memoir. "I realized there was a memoir piece within the oral history
research on my grandparents," she says. "The question was, of course,
‘Why was I there?’"
Yoder was encouraged to develop her memoir into a book by the fact
that there are very few publications about growing up Mennonite. "I
felt there were very few stories about Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites,"
she says. "I have come across a few, but those are generally geared
toward Mennonites. They’re not written for a general audience."
Both Yoder’s parents are still living in Harleysville, Pennsylvania,
north of Philadelphia, where her father is still a minister. She gave
her parents the manuscript to read before it was published. "By now my
dad and I are close," she says, "and both my parents are very
supportive." Her sister Juanita Yoder Kauffman, two years her senior
and also a Goshen College graduate, operates an art studio in
Hightstown and provided the illustrations for the book.
"Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life" includes not only the
Yoders’ family stories, past and present, but terse diary entries from
her grandmother Betts’ journal, and an album of old family
photographs, many showing Cynthia’s grandparents accompanied by their
children. A heroic snapshot of her grandfather holding two-year-old
twins, one of them the author’s father, is particularly affecting.
Betts Yoder’s journal entries begin January 1, 1933, shortly after the
book was given to her by her husband. Artfully chosen to work in
tandem with the page on which they appear, selected excerpts from the
journal continue through the 1940s. We quickly learn that Betts’ has
little time for introspection. A typical entry is the one that appears
for May 1, 1935: "This afternoon I planted the truck patch. I had two
coats on and then I was cold yet. I planted corn, three kinds,
cucumber, squash, two kinds of beans, radish, gladioli bulbs, and all
my peas." Or this one for October 11, 1945: "Did some sewing. Made
myself ten aprons and finished a dress out of feed bags."
Yoder’s grandfather died just three years after the year she spent
with him "on the Hill." Her grandmother Betts died four years later,
at age 91.
Maintaining its connection to tradition, "Crazy Quilt" concludes with
a sampling of recipes of Betts Yoder’s kitchen that includes her
popular Chocolate Easter Eggs, Shoofly Pie, and a questionable
Thanksgiving roast known as "Dutch Goose." Not listed in the recipe
section are the instructions for preparing the Peppery Squirrel and
Potato Pie served up by Aunt Sandi. How does it taste? I think you
should read the memoir to find out.
– Nicole Plett
Cynthia Yoder, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 609-716-1570.
Www.cynthiayoder.com. Reading and reception for "Crazy Quilt: Pieces
of a Mennonite Life." Free. Thursday, January 29, 7 p.m.
It was a humid spring night; the daffodils on Broadway were glowing
under the streetlamps, and the buds auditioned for their roles on the
trees of Riverside Park. In spring in New York City, the fauna bloom
along with the flora. People, in as much variety as their vegetable
counterparts, burst out of their hovels onto the sidewalks and
promenades to recharge with solar vitamin D. They roller blade like
fast ants, or saunter down the avenues with glances into bodegas
(where the lotto is up to $2 million) and they carry their boom boxes
on their shoulders like they’re showing off a young child.
In the playground that is spring, it is the worst time of year, in my
opinion, to be sitting on a mood swing that is no longer swinging.
You’re stuck, and even though you’re twenty-something, you’ve
forgotten how to pump.
(The remainder of this excerpt is available in the print version of
U.S. 1 Newspaper). Copyright 2004, DreamSeeker Books, Telford,
Pennsylvania, an imprint of Cascadia Publishing House. All rights
After the wrapping paper, the Santas, the gadgets, and the toys, I
find a trip to the "Plain People" of Lancaster County just the palate
cleanser I need. Simply driving along Lancaster’s roads is like a
journey back into the 19th century – except that you can gas up at a
Shell station on your way. Only two hours from Princeton, Route 23
boasts farm after farm, the stuff of P. Buckley Moss paintings.
Horse-drawn buggies, Amish children in their braids and black hats,
picturesque farms surrounded by wide horizons free of the clutter of
telephone polls and electrical wires, all lure you into our nearby
Because I grew up in the Mennonite tradition, Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
feels like a kind of "Zion" to me – the place of my mother’s ancestry,
the place where I could see what my family would have looked like 100
years ago, when my great-grandfather Elias Kulp was a strapping lad,
plying his hand at currying a horse and dreaming of becoming a
There aren’t many places in the Northeast where you can step back in
time like this. The West has its Anasazi cliff dwellings and Mormon
settlements. We have Native American pow-wows and restored farmsteads.
But nowhere can you visit the past like you can in Lancaster, where
people continue to maintain a lifestyle carried over from centuries
If you go to the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant in the town of
Bird-in-Hand, at 2760 Old Philadelphia Pike (717-768-8266), which is
where I like to go, you will most likely overhear patrons speaking
Pennsylvania Dutch. If you don’t know what that is, think German. The
"Dutch" in Pennsylvania Dutch actually comes from the word "Deutsch,"
or German. Somebody got it wrong way back when – the Pennsylvania
Dutch do not come from Holland. We sprechen Deutsch. Though it’s
actually Low German, from the Lowlands of Germany. Plat Deutsch.
The food at Bird-in-Hand is all home cooking – the buffet offers a
daily main course of Chicken Pot Pie, Pork and Sauerkraut, or Dutch
Pot Roast. There is an all-you-can eat lunch buffet for $8.25; dinner
buffet is $10.95, which includes soup, salad bar, breads, and just
way, way too much food. The decor is plain, but that’s the deal with
Amish and Mennonites. We’re plain, but friendly. And we cook really
good food – in a heavy, Germanic style.
Although you might not go to Lancaster to hear someone speak
Pennsylvania German, you may go to find out why they still speak it.
For in-depth and sensitive answers to your questions, I’d recommend
the People’s Place, at 3513 Old Philadelphia Pike, in Intercourse
(800-390-8436; www.thepeoplesplace.com). It is a hands-on discovery
museum for all ages, including a lively and picturesque film about the
Amish and an art gallery. Run by Mennonites, the People’s Place center
is as authentic as you can get.
Right across the street is the People’s Place Quilt Museum. One of the
things that often surprises visitors to Lancaster County is how
colorful Amish quilts are. Traditional Amish quilts date back to the
1700s, when the Amish and Mennonites began to settle in Lancaster
County. For people who were not encouraged to paint, draw, or express
themselves artistically, quilts were the outlet of choice. I’ve seen
Amish quilts that are amazing abstract paintings – simply made from
pieces of fabric.
One thing you should try to avoid at all costs in Lancaster is
21st-century kitsch. As with any tourist spot, if you’re not careful,
you’ll step right in it. (If you don’t watch your step, you may also
step in horse paddies as you cross the street.) That is not to say
that you shouldn’t choose a hand-crafted product to bring home. You
just have to check the tags. If is says, "Made in China," you know it
wasn’t made by the Amish.
I personally recommend the Old Country Store, which is conveniently
located below the People’s Place Quilt Museum. Here you can fulfill
your shopping urges with authentic, locally-made crafts. They sell
quilts, fabrics, wooden toys, dolls, soaps, weavings, and more,
offerings from more than 300 Amish and Mennonite craftspeople. It’s
cozy, authentic, and has amazing well-made crafts. Better Homes and
Gardens ranks it among the 10 best quilt shops in the United States.
While the Amish Farm and House, at 2395 Route 30 East, Lancaster
(717-394-6185; www.amishfarmandhouse.com) is no longer inhabited by
the Amish, it does give you a peek at a house that is authentically
furnished for the Amish, and a farm that has been farmed by the Amish
(and still is, though to a lesser degree). An informative guide can
answer your questions intelligently. The farm animals are authentic,
too – living, breathing, snorting.
A cousin of mine – who is a historian and a bit of a purist when it
comes to the Mennonites and Amish – says having an authentic Amish
farm that is open to tourists is an oxymoron. He has a point. The
Amish keep themselves insulated from the world by avoiding much
interaction with us. They also discourage their people from having
their photographs taken because they believe it violates the biblical
edict to not make graven images. But alas, it is the structure and
furnishings that you are looking at, not the people. You can visit
without offending anyone.
There is a way to get into real Amish establishments, and that is
through the Mennonite Information Center, located at 2209 Millstream
Road in Lancaster (717-299-0954). They have Amish and Mennonite "Step
In" guides available to ride in your vehicle and give you a tour of
the land, with unlimited access to your guide’s knowledge. For $28
(for up to seven people) you can drive with your guide through Amish
farm country and make stops at such Amish establishments as a
hand-made furniture shop or a quilt shop.
If you have small children and by now have used up their standing and
sitting quota, or if you like being a child yourself (recommended),
I’d check out the Strasburg Rail Road, Route 741 in Strasburg
(717-687-7522; www.strasburgrailroad.com). The railroad is closed is
January but reopens February 15, as long as the rails haven’t been
inundated by snow. The train is pulled by a vintage, coal-burning
steam locomotive that takes you right through the backyards of the
Amish – some of the most beautiful farmland in the country. The
45-minute narrated round trip starts with a whistle that you just
won’t hear on Amtrak.
If you really like locomotion, right across the street is the Railroad
Museum of Pennsylvania. (717-687-8628; www.rrmuseumpa.org). This
museum houses one of the most impressive collections of historic
railroad artifacts in the world – including trains from the
Pennsylvania Railroad. (And we all know what that is from playing
Monopoly.) You can feast your eyes on some 100 locomotives and cars
from the mid-19th and 20th centuries – even get inside a caboose, a
locomotive cab, and a passenger compartment.
If you go to the website and click around, you can listen to railroad
tunes. I listened to these songs while writing this article and had to
keep resisting the urge to go down to the station and buy myself a
ticket to New Orleans or some other distant destination. It’s a little
of my great-grandfather in me – though he never did become a train
engineer, he grew up to become an evangelist in Lancaster County
Winter is tricky for travel, we know. If your best-laid plans are
suddenly canceled because of the icy roads, don’t despair. The
Lancaster Amish come to us every weekend. At the Pennsylvania Dutch
Farmer’s Market on Route 27, Kingston (609-683-5260), located nearby
in the Kingston Mall, you could very well be in Lancaster. The market
is open Thursdays through Saturdays, and if you’re wondering if you’ve
gotten the real deal, just show up very early on Saturday mornings to
observe the pig roast in the parking lot.
My recommendation is to buy foods to go. The dining area is
characteristically plain, but not in any cozy way. The baked goods are
drool-worthy, and there is a fine selection of meats, cheeses,
produce, and even furniture and hand-crafted gifts. When I go, it’s
for the hot pretzels or just to hear the accents and see the kind of
beard my father wore at one time. It’s a fine place to sample what
it’s like to do business with the Plain People. Maybe we’ll see you
there sometime. As my Great Aunt Ruth says, "Mier Sehe Dict!"
– Cynthia Yoder
Cynthia Yoder reads from her new memoir "Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a
Mennonite Life" at Barnes and Noble in Marketfair on Thursday, January
29, at 7 p.m.
Mennonite Information Center, 2209 Millstream Road, Lancaster,
Pennsylvania Dutch Convention & Visitors Bureau, 501 Greenfield Road,
Lancaster, 800-723-8824. www.PaDutchCountry.com.
Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant, 2760 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bird in
Hand, 717-768-8266; www.bird-in-hand.com.
The People’s Place, 3513 Old Philadelphia Pike, Intercourse,
The People’s Place Quilt Museum, 3510 Old Philadelphia Pike,
Intercourse, 800-828-8218. www.ppquiltmuseum.com.
The Amish Farm and House, 2395 Route 30 East, Lancaster, 717-394-6185.
Strasburg Rail Road, Route 741, Strasburg, 717-687-7522;
www.strasburgrailroad.com. Reopens Sunday, February 15.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, Route 741, Strasburg, Pennsylvania,
Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer’s Market, Route 27, Kingston, New Jersey,
Now that the season of New Year’s resolutions has long passed, and old
habits are back with a vengeance, there’s a little book out that asks
us to look at our lives from the inside out. The book is called, "The
Hard Questions for an Authentic Life," by best-selling author Susan
Piver. Just released this year from Gotham Books, it’s written like a
workbook, in which you can record your answers. Only no one is going
to be going through it with a red pen.
The "hard" threw me at first – I didn’t pick it up for days after it
arrived in the mail. Who wants to look at hard questions? Going
through it gives the feeling of having a wise woman sitting at your
elbow, prompting you to look seriously at the different areas of your
life. Some may look, and some may turn away, crying, "Noooooo!" But
even if you do one section, it’s probably worth the $15. It’s
certainly cheaper than calling a therapist.
The book covers the main areas of life – relationships, work, money,
creativity, and spirituality. It asks probing questions, like, "How
much does my current job reflect my values, goals and aspirations?"
Okay, I wouldn’t use it as water-cooler discussion points…. But it’s
not a bad question to think about on the train ride home. And just in
case you’re one of the millions of Americans who already know the
answer, you might want to consider the following question, "Is there a
way I can cause my current work situation to more fully reflect my
values? How? When?"
This author knows what she’s doing. A few years ago, she gave us "The
Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do’"
a New York Times best-seller. I often give that book as a bride’s gift
– because I know her questions are more likely than fluffy towels to
make a marriage. A Greek philosopher once said, "An unexamined life is
not worth living." Okay, that’s a little harsh. But as I read Piver’s
new book of questions, I realized there were some I’d never thought to
ask myself. I was surprised. I thought I was fairly examined.
For example: "Does my family ‘see’ and appreciate who I really am? If
not, how can I bring them more fully into my inner life?" I wrote a
whole book on coming to terms with my strict Pennsylvania Dutch
heritage. And yet after reading this question, I realized that even
around my own son, who is six, I keep some of my beliefs quiet. Why?
I’m 37. If I want to shout from the mountain that I believe in
reincarnation, who’s going to care? Wasn’t he the toddler who
exclaimed, "When I’m a goose, I’m going to eat worms!"
And then there is Piver’s question about how much money you want to
make in the next year, five years, ten years, twenty. "Do I have (or
need) a plan for reaching these goals?" I have had ideas, but they’ve
seemed vague and seem out of reach. I like the idea of a plan. In
fact, I sat down only a few days later and made a plan. Why, I ask
myself, didn’t I do that before? If I had, would I be rich by now?
Self-improvement is such a big business. But I think Piver has an edge
that not many other share because she asks people to take simple steps
that you actually write down in your book. The subtitle to Piver’s
book is "100 Essential Questions for Designing Your Life from the
Inside Out." I love that. We’re the designers. The interior designers
of our lives. And why not? You wouldn’t want someone else to do the
– Cynthia Yoder
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