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Letter from America. 

Living A Temporary "Plain" Life.

By Cara Sheridan O’Donnell. 

O'Donnell Irish EyesO'Donnell Irish EyesIt is Day 13 of life without power after Hurricane Sandy whipped her way through and damaged – no, ravaged – a good portion of my hometown of Manhasset, Long Island, New York.  Spoiled by years of heat in winter, cool central air conditioning in summer, running hot water, and (in all seasons) immediate access to electricity to activate the technological devices at my disposal, I am not finding it easy to acclimate to “plain” living, even for a short period of time.  To assist me in this endeavor, I called upon Ira Wagler, best-selling author of Growing Up Amish (Chicago, Illinois:  Tyndale House Publishing, 2011).  If my friends in Ireland have not yet been infected by the recent American fascination for all aspects of Amish culture, you will be after you read Ira’s memoir of his Amish boyhood and young adulthood.  But I digress.

In the middle of Post-Sandy Night 11, I was, upon entering my darkened bathroom, still reaching, as if on auto-pilot, for the light switch. Oh, right, I reminded myself, power’s out. No big deal; I’ve been doing this for decades now.  I think I can manage in the dark.  What was truly a shock to my system, however, was that exquisitely painful moment when butt met freezing-cold toilet seat.  People, I am here to assure you that this is most decidedly not a pleasant experience and, I dare say, is not something to which I could ever grow accustomed. 

After slapping my hand across my mouth to muffle a completely involuntary squeal of a pitch in the human vocal register hitherto unheard, I reminded myself that there are thousands of people far worse off than we are in my household.  We have a small generator to power up a couple of lamps in one room, but gasoline for it (and for cars, for that matter) is in extremely short supply, so we limit its use to evenings.  The nor’easter that dumped close to a foot of snow on the ground one week after Sandy came and went caused further outages; many residents of locales in  which power had been restored after Sandy were again made aware of the wrath of Mother Nature when they lost power for the second time in a week.  Moreover, many thousands of folks are completely homeless and will be for some time.  I am one of the fortunate; fallen tree disposal will cost plenty but, inside my home, the sentimental treasures of five generations remain intact. 

The lighting of candles at night has become a somewhat comforting ritual, thanks to my conversation with Ira Wagler.  In our telephone call, he mentioned that the lighting of kerosene lamps in the evening was a chore assigned to children old enough to strike a match.  As a prelude to a tasty dinner cooked by a mother on gas- or a wood-burning stove in the typical, whitewashed Amish frame house, I can imagine that lamp-lighting was a chore quickly and cheerfully accomplished by those Amish kids.  (After all, Amish cuisine is considered delicious; furthermore, Amish women like to cook bountifully, serving up generous portions for their larger-than-average families at every meal.)  I told Ira that I’d try to think of a good meal as I placed flame to wick after wick after wick on the dozens of candles that now illuminate my kitchen with a rather romantic collective glow.  Sadly, though, aside from a couple of delightful dinners out with friends to warm restaurants with working kitchens, our home fare since Sandy has consisted of take-out meals and sandwiches slapped together.  And, heck, I am not Amish!  I do not choose to live the plain life.  It has been forced upon me, and I want out!

As a new correspondent to this column, I can only entreat you to keep the sentences above pertaining to my middle-of-the-night bathroom expedition to yourselves.  I do want to be able to call Ira Wagler again in the future, should his expertise be required for another assignment.  He might not be Amish anymore, but he is an absolutely delightful Mennonite.  Now, I don’t know as much about Mennonites as I do about the Amish, but I’m pretty sure they frown upon uttering (much less writing) the word “butt.”  (I’m not even certain that they would use the word “toilet” in polite society.)  But because I would dearly love to get a signed copy of Ira’s next book, I simply ask that you don’t go forwarding this piece to him. 

DO, though, go and get a copy of his current book! It’s available on, including a Kindle edition.  (If my Kindle didn’t require a recharge right now, I’d get that version myself for a re-read.)  Whatever version of Growing Up Amish you do acquire, I promise you that you’ll enjoy it!

Short Bio of Cara Sheridan O’Donnell

Cara is a former book editor for a major US publisher, mother of four, grandmother of two, and now a freelance writer and editor.

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