Excerpt: ‘Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life’

A Visit to the `Plain People’

Re-Designing Your Life: A Useful How-to Book

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

spiritual leader.

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

Mennonite pie.

"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.

Top Of Page
Excerpt: ‘Crazy Quilt: Pieces of a Mennonite Life’

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


Top Of Page
A Visit to the `Plain People’

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

never-never land.

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

railroad engineer.

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.

Pennsylvania Plains

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,

800-390-8436. www.thepeoplesplace.com.

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,

717-687-8628. www.rrmuseumpa.org.

Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer’s Market, Route 27, Kingston, New Jersey,


Top Of Page
Re-Designing Your Life: A Useful How-to Book

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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