On Being Woman: Reflections on My Mennonite Running Life

Last summer I was interrupted during a particularly foggy early morning 12-mile run. There was an unusual amount of road traffic for just after sunrise on a Saturday. I noticed a large number of Amish buggies, and huge white Amish-hauler vans and big trucks (that seemed like they should have Trump stickers but didn’t) were passing me. As I coasted down a hill, I realized I was running through Linda Stoltzfoos’s search party. I approached a Mennonite church parking lot and found the make-shift search party headquarters. It was 7:00 a.m., and probably one hundred Amish, Mennonite, and community members were gathering to commence the search. Buggies were still arriving, and police cars slowly cruised in the lot. Several men eyed me carefully as I jogged past. I kept my head down and kept running.

It’s been one year since Linda Stoltzfoos, an 18-year-old Amish teen, disappeared from Beechdale Road in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. She was walking home from a Sunday church service when she was kidnapped, strangled, and stabbed to death by Justo Smoker.

I think about her regularly, for I, too, spend time alone on country roads. She, walking home from a Sunday church service, and I, a Mennonite long-distance runner.

When the news story broke last June about her disappearance, and in the following weeks as a kidnapping and murder seemed imminent, I felt sick to my stomach. I spend hours running alone on country roads in Lancaster County. What if it had been me? Had I been out that day? I checked my GPS watch running logs. My half-marathon training records show a 6-mile run in a nearby area the day before.

The 12-mile run when I stumbled upon her search party was a difficult run to finish, for I imagined myself finding a body… in a ditch, in a corn field, under a tree.

I remember as I finished my run and I neared my house, a squad came screaming past. I felt sick to my stomach. Had they found her body? Was it nearby?

While the run was traumatic, I suppose I felt safe that day. I was at least running through a search party.

I think about safety a lot. I’ve been road running for eight years, and you learn some things.

Like when you choose a new running route, don’t use earbuds for several days. Get used to the route. Notice the traffic, the people. Notice the cars driving past. Do you feel safe? Where do you feel exposed? Don’t run at night. Wear bright colors. If you’re running in the early morning, wear a head lamp. At all times have an exit plan. That slow-approaching car? Where can you turn off? Which Amish farm is closest? Do you trust the folks at this non-Amish farm? Pay attention to cars that pass you twice. Memorize license plates. (You can always tell when folks are watching you when they pass you from behind because they slightly drift over the yellow line. Every time a car drifts over the line, I look up and find myself locking eyes with someone in the rear-view mirror.) (It’s always a man.)

Part of my approach to road safety I’ve learned from one of my friends who lives in New York (which, according to my rural neighbors is “the most dangerous place in the world”). Besides the common-sense tips of not being out alone after dark, she talks about intuition.

“You don’t feel safe? Something feels off? That person on the subway making you feel uncomfortable? Get out. Move to a different car. Change your location. There’s a reason your body is giving you these messages. Listen to your intuition.”

Recently we traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were walking, just the two of us, through the beautiful, colorful streets, Instagramming the architecture in the late afternoon sun. The streets were empty, and we turned down one street and noticed a man muttering to himself. We felt it at the same time.

“Let’s turn around,” I said.

“Absolutely, let’s go the other way,” she replied.

As two 30-year-old single women, we enjoyed our time exploring Old San Juan. We also listened to our intuition and deviated from our route if necessary.

For the most part, nobody bothers me when I run. The time in my life when I received the most harassment was when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana that was surrounded by Amish homesteads. It was common on my afternoon run for J.O.’s  in a Jeep to drive by and harass me. (J.O. refers to “jumped over”; it refers to Indiana Amish youth who have left the Amish; they have “jumped over” the fence.) They would honk the horn and yell at me, leaving me to think J.O.’s in their free time weren’t good for much.

Mostly, though, when people see a Mennonite woman running, there is just general confusion. When I was attending a Mennonite Bible Institute in southern Indiana, I was running (in a skirt) one winter afternoon. An “English” man was walking next to his young son who was on a bicycle. A look of great concern came over the man’s face as I approached, and he motioned for his son to stop riding, (presumably so he could “save” me from whatever it was I was running from). I awkwardly waved, tried to smile, and ran past.

When I moved to Lancaster, PA, a Mennonite friend in the city offered me a “running tour” of Lancaster city. We were both wearing Mennonite running skorts. I donned an Adidas hat to cover my head, and she wore a prayer veiling. We scampered all over the city. A young woman with a missing tooth and a cigarette walked past, “Okay, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have NEVER seen an Amish person exercise.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes. My friend smiled and said hello.

As I think about running safety and the different reactions I get while running (from mild harassment to general confusion), it strikes me how these experiences are not shared by Mennonite men. No one bats an eye if a Mennonite man were to run down the road. But this is not the case for Mennonite women. (Indeed, no one bats an eye if a white Mennonite man were to run down the road. The same might not be said for an African American man.)

And so I think about the parts of my running experience that are not shared by white men. For Justo Smoker did not attack an Amish male. He attacked an Amish girl.

And I wonder – is the experience of being a woman different than the experience of being a man? The answer is so obvious, but there are those who want it not to be true exactly when they need to focus on it. There are those who pretend the experience is the same for everyone precisely when it is not.

The fact that I think about Linda Stoltzfoos on nearly every run is evidence, for one. I’m constantly scanning traffic. I notice my route radiuses getting shorter and shorter. I notice I struggle to have motivation to get on the road. I haven’t been this scared before. All this, based on one murder. (It makes me wonder what my black brothers and sisters experience, considering the news we encounter on a regular basis.)

Indeed, different Mennonite women have different attitudes toward road running and female safety. I once suggested a running route to one of my friends, and she said to me, “You would run on that road?! A man exposed himself to some girls on that road once!”

While I champion safety, I do not fall into this “fear of the public” mentality.

“Let’s be clear,” I responded. “That was a one-time event. He doesn’t live on that road and was probably driving past. I’m not going to avoid one of the most beautiful (open, visible) routes in Lancaster because of a one-time event years ago.”

You see? They don’t get to scare us. They don’t get to make us disappear. I will keep running and being visible. I will keep showing up. I refuse to stay inside.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about systems recently. How systems can carry ideology and treatment of people even if the people currently running the system don’t believe those things, and the folks who put those systems in place are long gone. As a school admin, I see how systems put in place years ago continue to affect students and staff that the institution serves. It occurs to me that there can be institutional dysfunction which is the fault of no current employee, yet we all experience the dysfunction, and we all bear the responsibility for change. (I could give examples from various institutions – can you?) (I like to think that it works both ways, that leaders can affect long-lasting positive change, institutional change that outlives them. Why does it feel so hard to be hopeful in this way?)

Is it different being a woman?

A friend of mine, studying at a liberal Mennonite university gave a literary presentation that somehow included reference to his conservative upbringing, to women, and to feminism. A questioner in the audience asked about women from his community and about feminism – if they want it. My friend responded, “Mennonite women are largely content. They have no need of feminism.” He told me this story as if for approval, yet self-assured of his answer. I looked him square in the eye and said: “I would never have given that answer!”

And he shouldn’t have either. He is much too educated to provide such a simplistic, unnuanced answer. He should have at the very least said, “It’s complicated,” and cited the countless sex abuse cases and the (countable) disaffected Mennonite women he knows.

But when a system is working for you, you don’t question if it is working for others. Not to mention the female hegemony he doesn’t look past. 

Years ago, a group of young Mennonite students plopped into their seats as the bell rang for my English class, and they asked as a group: “Miss Swartzentruber, are you a feminist?”

This was a land mine, for then (as now) the word feminist is heard as a four-letter word among conservative Mennonites, especially in those pockets where fundamentalism has attached itself to Anabaptism.

I backed away from the land mine. Turning the question around on them, I asked, “What do you mean by a feminist? Can you define what feminism is?”

They squirmed and looked at each other.

I went on: “If by feminism you mean that female teachers should get paid the same as men, and that female teachers should receive the same benefits as married male teachers, then yes, I’m a feminist.”

A few kids raised their eyebrows. Not because I said, “I’m a feminist,” but because of the hint I was giving them about pay practices at a Mennonite school they attended. These bright students knew that their female teachers worked their fingers to the bone every day for their students. I believe they were shocked to discover that between their goofy, easy-going teachers there was inequality quietly percolating, as it had been, for years.

I suppose what running is teaching me right now is that different people from different groups have different experiences. And it’s no use arguing that we all experience the same things.

Yet no matter how often I have this conversation, someone refuses to listen to it. It is as if there is a chosen deafness.

Why can’t we trust people? Why is it so hard to accept that someone has had different experiences than me? And that those experiences have occurred in systems which happen to benefit me, but not entirely everybody else?

Despite the fact that running motivation for me has been quite low, a few months ago I signed up for the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon. This local race is nationally recognized for its community experience and next-door view of Amish life. Runners “run with the Amish” through Lancaster County, past Amish farms and schoolhouses. Aid stations are manned by Amish kids and families, and finisher medals are fashioned from old horseshoes from Amish horses. I generally avoid heritage tourist traps, but the race is so highly rated (and literally in my backyard) that I figured I ought to run it. (I noticed that the course is only a half mile from Beechdale road.)

My training leading up to the race was absolute trash. Pouring rain, an insane work schedule, and low motivation caused me to miss half of my training runs. Then I got quite sick with allergies the week of the race. I decided to run anyway, despite my hacking cough and intermittent nosebleeds.

Registration, parking, and port-a-pots were seamless. Indeed, Mennonites and Amish are similar enough for me to know that we know how to do large group events. The lack of thumping music at the starting line was also decidedly local. I felt proud to be welcoming so many out-of-state visitors to “my” community. Didn’t see many Amish or Mennonite runners, though; I was rockin’ a skirt by myself, amidst all the neon spandex.

By mile 2, I ended up in an Amish front yard for a 20-minute pit stop. I had a nosebleed.

“You live here?” I asked four Amish spectators.

Fluids flowed down my hand. Each spectator checked their pockets for tissues.

An Amish man asked softly if I would like some paper towels, a rag to clean myself, and a cup of cold water.

“That would be nice?” I stammered. I realized the nosebleed was going to be a bad one, and I contemplated dropping out. Meanwhile, an Amish lady found a crumpled (used?) tissue, which I accepted. The Amish man returned, and I jammed paper towels on my face. I asked him how many runners he knows are racing.

“Didn’t they say about 1800? Or do you mean how many runners I know personally? About 8 or so. My son was one of the first ones through here,” he said modestly. Though wearing a long beard, he did not have a mustache, and his cheeks looked like they had just been shaved. Behind him, a cow mooed.   

He looked at me: “You need someone to help you. You don’t want to keep running. It could start bleeding again. Aren’t there people around to help?” He was referring to the race organizers and the ambulances dotting the course.

He mentioned a second time that I should probably not finish the race.

THIS WAS EVERY MOTIVATION I NEEDED TO ABSOLUTELY FINISH THE RACE.

I mumbled something about finding an ambulance, then motioned awkwardly to the pile of paper towels at his feet.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said softly, looking into the distance.

I walked for a mile holding my nose, then carried dirty paper towels for 10 more miles. Which I ran without stopping.

At one point, I came upon a group of women in matching miniskirts cresting a hill, squawking like birds.

“Where are you from?” I asked, jogging past.

“Long Island!” they hollered. “LONG OYLAND! Long Oyland! Where YOU from?!”

“I’m from right here, man; I run these roads every Saturday.”

“Ahhhh! You are so lucky!” they cried.

Indeed, little Amish kids offered “wasser” at multiple aid stations, their little chorus of cries in near unison. I was amused at the runners’ wonder and curiosity at all of the county delights – I mentally catalogued all the things they photographed.  

Because I had stopped so long for my nosebleed, the race had really thinned out. For the last two miles, we were running parallel to Beechdale road. I was running alone, and I thought of Linda Stoltzfoos. I blinked back tears.

I finished the race and was surprised by the “community picnic,” a free, massive Amish dinner of ribs, BBQ chicken, potato salad, veggies, cake, and soft-serve ice cream. I wanted to hug the food tent. I’m not sure if race participants understood how Amish/Mennonite that part of the event was. The menu, the help-yourself buffet styling, the endless food for a crowd of over 2000, the seamless organization of it all, the little tiny Amish and Mennonite children darting to and fro. This kind of hospitality runs deep in my bones.

With my back to a tent of 1000 people, I sat by myself in the grass, cross-legged in the bright September sun. I thought to myself how, though I had been surrounded by 2000 people that day, I had barely spoken to anyone all morning (except for the runner’s group from Long Island) and one Amish man.

Both of these groups were my people: the running community, and the plain community. Yet that morning, somehow I felt more like a spectator than a participant, in both groups. 

And maybe that’s what I mean by different people from different groups have different experiences. I wonder what it takes to identify the margins. Who is experiencing life differently than I am? And what might they need?

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Junge Frau: A Story about Growing up Female

There was no warning when she came to live with us. I came down the dark brown carpeted steps one morning and stopped short – a young woman in sleeveless floral pajamas was ironing a blouse, her soft brown hair about her shoulders. I whispered to my sisters, “Who is that?” Mama looked at me and said, “This is Rosie. She’s from Germany. She’s going to stay with us.”

I had a vague memory of talk of a visitor last week, but clearly it had not stuck, for I was quite startled to see this stranger drying her hair and ironing clothes in the dining room. Uncharacteristically, I stood back, lingering behind my sisters.

After breakfast, Papa took the girls to school in his unmarked white box truck, and Mama and I drove with Rosie in our wood-paneled minivan all the way to Rosedale. Mama told me that Rosie was going to attend Rosedale Bible Institute. German words dropped here and there as Mama asked about Rosie’s parents back in Berlin. See, Mama and Papa had lived in Berlin in the 80s. They worked at the Hafen. Papa “worked with the guys from the streets,” and Mama did housework. Rosie’s parents had been Papa and Mama’s house parents. The Hafen, of course, was in West Berlin; the Berlin wall surrounded the city, at the time, separating it from communist East Germany.

Rosie asked, “And the girls? They have school?”

“Yes, Lester drove them this morning.”

“And Esther?”

I sat up a little straighter and tried to look important.

“Esther is in Kindergarten, and she only goes three days a week. She does not have school today.”

I remember thinking that it was in fact nice to have a day off with these ladies.

Kindergarten was a German word that I knew – it meant “child garden.” Papa also sometimes called us “Kinder!” to beckon us inside. I knew other German words, like all the words to Gott Ist Die Liebe. (Papa made me sing it for Walter Beachy every Sunday that he preached, when he carried me out through the receiving line.) Vorsichtig is what Papa says to you when you need to pay attention to what you’re doing. Mama and Papa say “Tschuss!” to each other every morning and kiss each other on the lips. I used to think tschuss means “kiss,” but I think it means goodbye. At the table, you said bitte and danke and it was usually all right to get the butter then.

Culottes, Cut Flowers, & Me, 1996

Rosie spent a few days at our house before moving into the dorms at Rosedale, and she came to our house occasionally after that. How much did we learn about being a woman!

There were Victoria magazines, skirts with buttons down the front, fashionable European shoes with chunky heels (Mom called them “clodhoppers”), German coffees, and tea parties. Rosie took one look at our hair brush and said, “No, no!” She promptly bought us a brand-new brush (the right kind!), and introduced us to Herbal Essences shampoo. She’d weave our long hair into intricate braids – French, inside-out, and fish braids – and choose a French twist for herself, or even better, she’d style her hair with a red velvety accessory called a “turd.” (How we laughed at the name!)

We visited her dorm room at Rosedale, and we met her roommate Carol. They gushed, professing undying love for each other: “We even have nicknames for each other – sometimes I call her Honey Bee, and she calls me Sweetie Pie!” Carol had the most beautiful mane of thick black curls (she looked like Diana Barry), and in my 5-year-old mind, Carol and Rose were the most elegant women on earth. They’d come to our house for Sunday dinner sometimes and occasionally bring friends.

Rosie loved fresh flowers, and she wore silver rings on her fingers. She also liked “laying out,” and we’d lie on the lawn on a blanket beside her lawn chair while she tanned. Laying out took forever. One Sunday we were “laying out,” and Rosie started giggling.

“Why are you laughing?” my sister asked.

“Ettie can’t sit still. She runs inside to get a pillow. She runs inside to get a drink. She runs back in to get a book.”

After that, I tried very hard to lie still and Not Move. But it was just very rather boring to lie in the grass!

One time we asked what Germany is like and she said it’s a place where rats come up the toilet and bite you on the bum. I immediately listed Germany among countries not worth visiting.

Some time later Mama and Rosie were reminiscing about Germany days. “We’ll have to take the girls sometime!” Mama said.

I piped up, very serious, “I do not want to go to Germany!”

“What?” Rosie asked, “Why not?”

“There are RATS in the pots!” I wailed.

Mama and Rosie erupted into laughter.

“I was only joking,” Rosie said, “They don’t bite you on the bum in the bathroom.”

Still. It seemed like a place not to go.

Occasionally, Rosie invited her many friends to our house. She once hosted an entire dinner party – all gentlemen. The table was immaculately set with all the place settings. There can be no doubt that strong coffee and German kuchen (like Erdbeer-Sahne-Torte or Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) were for dessert. Our phone with a cord rang at the last minute.

“All right! A girl’s coming!” Rosie cried, as she hung up the phone. “Gotta change the plates!”

She had set the entire table in Mama’s plain cream dishes, with all the matching place settings. With the presence of just one other woman at the table, it was worth it to change the place settings to Mama’s best china. We quickly reset the entire table.

Once Mama and Papa went to ministers and elders meeting, and we had a babysitter. The babysitter was also attending Rosedale Bible Institute at the time, and she called beforehand asking if she could take us to the talent show. I didn’t know what a talent show was, but it was like church, except like when the youth group did it, at night. People sang songs and did skits, and it was all right to laugh. Afterward, our babysitter greeted all of her friends. We saw Rosie, and she poked each of us in the stomach and squeezed our cheeks so hard that we almost cried, were it not for all the smiling.

Rosie had male friends who occasioned our house – one in particular was Bill. He came quite frequently, he and his long blonde hair. He was what I think Mama calls “ruggedly handsome.” From the very beginning, I did not like Bill. He took up a lot of my new friend’s time – I developed an aversion to him. He tried to speak to me while I emptied the dishwasher.

“Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said without looking at him, “It’s Billy Goat’s Butt.”

Bill didn’t say anything and went back out to the patio. At some point that evening, Mama found me.

“Esther, I want you to be nice to Bill. You are being very RUDE.”

“I only called him Billy Goat’s Butt,” I fumed.

“That is rude. You do not call anyone by that name.”

Weeks later, Bill came through the door for the cream-colored-dish-turned-fine-china dinner party.

“Hi, Esther,” Bill winked. “Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “It’s Bill.” 

“Aren’t you going to call me Billy Goat’s Butt?”

“No,” I said, and went out and sat on the porch swing by myself.

Rosie knew how to sew, and once she made a sailor-style shirt for Bill. It featured corded lacing in the front. Mama raised her eyebrows: “I guess that will show some chest.”

Rosie folded the shirt, “Probably.”

Rosie surprised us in other ways, like her penchant for thunderstorms. She would even SIT on the PORCH… during the storms!

“You’re crazy!” Mom hollered, as cracks of lightning flitted across the pitch-black fields, followed by cacophonous booms.

“Thunderstorms are the best!” she’d say, and disappear onto the porch with a letter to write.

For her first car, Rosie bought a tiny blue Ford Escort, and one sunny day, she washed it outside on the concrete slab while singing along to songs on the radio we’d never heard before.

“How do you know all these songs?” we asked, incredulous.

“It’s called pop! They played it on the radio every day in Germany when I rode the bus to school!” she said, before belting out another tune. We helped spray down her hubcaps before retreating to play with a ball we found. When she practiced for her driver’s test in our driveway, we rode in the back seat and listened to more “pop” while she maneuvered a stick shift in our short lane.

Her brothers came to visit her once, and our house was filled with laughter as Papa and Mama retold countless stories of life at the Hafen when Rose and her brothers were young. I finally met the infamous young man Angie, who in Papa’s slides was a boy who would sleepily say each morning, “Honig, bitte.”

We went to house fellowship on Sunday evening, and Rose and her brothers stayed home. When we drove home under a full moon, we were not prepared for the scene we found. They were lying in the middle of the road.

Mom was in hysterics in the van, and Papa turned into our lane. “They’re crazy,” he muttered. Papa parked the van, and we all ran out to the road.

“What in the world are you doing?” Mama shrieked.

They laughed. “We’re sitting on the road! What does it look like we’re going?”

“Do you have any idea how fast people drive on this road?!” Mom was referring to the extremely flat, extremely straight country road, bordered on both sides by corn fields and bean fields and the occasional Midwestern house.

“We’re learning!” Angie grinned.

“What do you do if a car comes?” I gasped.

“We roll to the other side of the road. Like this!” They rolled over. “And if a car comes on the other side, we roll like this!” They rolled back.

One time, after being away for some time, Rosie returned to visit us, and she showed us a painting she had done of some cherries. I stared at it, wide-eyed.

“How did you do that?” I breathed, incredulous. For it had the look of actual cherries. Real cherries! If you looked closely, she had used colors not associated with cherries to get the actual look of cherries. One of the colors she used was peach.

“You like to draw, don’t you, Esther?” she asked.

I said, dumbfounded, “I will never be able to paint like that.”

“You will,” she said, and meant it. “You will paint like that someday.” I hardly believed her. How could a person learn to paint so that it looked real?

At some point she transferred to a college, I suppose, for soon we were traveling to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend her college graduation. It was an incredible thing to be invited to a real campus. We stayed in a bed & breakfast with very thin walls and a bathroom in the hallway.

Part of the festivities in the almost Southern town was a final chorale program in which Rosie sang in a choir. The concert was in a large white church, with tall white ceilings and dark wood railings at the front. We had very good seats. An African American woman sang a solo, after which many people clapped, and during one piece I was shocked for the director to seat himself and for a woman to direct the choir for a performance. She was a student director, he said, and I never knew in my life that a woman could direct music. I cannot for the life of me remember if she was African American too, and it seems like it matters to remember if she was or not, but all I remember is that she was a woman.

When we left the concert, my sisters and I immediately began whispering about the soloist.

“Her voice was so weird!” we said. We tried to imitate her voice using shrill-like trills. Mama overheard us.

“Oh no,” Mama said matter-of-factly, “She was an excellent soprano with an incredible vibrato. I’m sure her director loves the fact that she can sing that high. She was an excellent soloist!”

I sat back, again surprised. I clearly had much to learn about singing soprano. How could anybody enjoy that kind of singing? But Mama knew. She was one of the best sopranos in church. In fact, she herself had sung in the Rosedale Chorale for many years.

During the graduation visit, we took an evening walk through campus, past tall white columns and under Southern trees to a church where sometimes Rosie and her friends played for worship. They walked to the front of the church, past the dark railings for kneeling, and in the near dark played and sang songs for our little entourage. After the first piece, someone clapped.

“Oh, no, don’t clap,” one of the them said haltingly. “We always play in the context of worship, so there isn’t clapping.”

Again, I was surprised. So we just sat quietly in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to their music.

The next day was graduation. We hiked to the balcony of a grand old auditorium for the baccalaureate service and giggled and giggled as the procession began – for the outfits! The outfits! Oh they must be prof – prof – professors! Look at their heads! Their heads! My mother laughed out loud at the colorful regalia.

“Did you like their outfits?” Rosie asked me later. I giggled.

We craned our necks from the balcony as the graduates processed in, in long lines of black caps and gowns. Far below, and halfway up the aisle, Rosie turned around, looked up, and winked at us. This, too, surprised me.      

 * 

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