Sarah Smiley: Encounter with the Amish at the copy machine

I did not expect to see any Amish people during a recent trip to the local office supply store. Partly this was because I didn’t see any buggies outside. Mostly, however, it was because I had some misguided notions about Amish – notions like they’d have no use for a store that at least in part caterers to users of technology.

I did not expect to see any Amish people during a recent trip to the local office supply store. Partly this was because I didn’t see any buggies outside. Mostly, however, it was because I had some misguided notions about Amish – notions like they’d have no use for a store that at least in part caterers to users of technology.

So I’m afraid the shock was visible on my face when I rounded the corner with my shopping cart and saw Amish women standing in front of each of the store’s three copy machines.

I stood there for a while with my stack of papers and waited for my turn at one of the machines. The women moved gracefully and purposefully, their long skirts swishing back and forth, their modest shoes barely making a sound. They were like a well choreographed dance.

After one of the women caught my eye and saw that I was waiting to also make copies, the women gathered and came up with a plan to vacate one of the machines to make room for me. I had interrupted their dance.

“If you’d like to use this machine, you can,” one woman said. “We just need to get our credit card out of it.”

Amish people have credit cards?

Again, I feared my ignorance was showing.

Standing in front of the copier, with one pile of papers nearly collapsing to the floor on one side and the innards of my purse looking like it had exploded on a table on the other side, I was suddenly aware of my clumsiness. I was not the choreographed dance that the women beside me were, even now as they managed with one less machine.

And then I couldn’t figure out how to program the copier for double-sided pages. I was talking to myself: “stupid machine … so few buttons … every button has two functions … I feel like I need a PhD …”

One of the Amish women came over and walked me through the process. “You just push this button here, which gives you these options, and then you select two sided, and then—“

I floundered in my awkwardness. “Gosh, thank you,” I said. “I knew it must do double sided. It’s funny how we get used to these machines being more and more advanced, and then … I mean, some of us get used to machines, which is really bad … I mean—“

The woman smiled and walked away, back to her copying.

Later, we were standing on either side of a work counter stapling, cutting and filing the pages we’d just made. She looked uncomfortable as she sat down on a stool, and when we caught eyes, she said, “I’m a little sore because I climbed Mt. Katahdin yesterday.”

“Wait, YOU climbed Mt. Katahdin … in your clothes?” I said. “I mean, in those clothes? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with those clothes, but I’ve only climbed half of Mt. Katahdin in jogging shorts, and I thought I wouldn’t make it.”

She smiled again. “I would not dress any other way,” she said.

The iPhone in my pocket rang at some point, and I wanted to smash it, or at least pretend someone had stuffed that evil machine playing “Uptown Funk” into my pocked when I wasn’t looking.

The papers I had copied were exercises for a journalism course. I didn’t not want the woman in front of me to know that, nor did I want her to know that I make my living in mass communication, transmitted over technology.

The woman told me more about her faith and the work she does as an Amish school teacher. I found myself overcome with admiration for these women who are obviously so used to people rubbernecking at their (oddly) conspicuous clothing that they didn’t even notice how many people turned their heads and stared inside the office supply store. Clearly, their faith and dedication is strong.

Later that night, I would research the Amish and learn that some use technology in limited amounts, so long as the electricity is not their own, and they don’t think technology is evil by itself, but that easy access to technology drives a wedge between communities and families. Their traditional plain clothing reflects a desire to be humble and modest.

But after my encounter with the Amish at the store, I would say their clothing serves another unintended purpose, too. It serves as a visual reminder to the rest of us to reevaluate our relationship with modern conveniences.

Could I live without my smart phone? Probably not. Could I live without a copier? Actually, yes. In fact, “making copies” seems very dated now that syllabi and course materials are all online. And maybe that is why the Amish have warmed to this technology that no longer makes us dependent. Which makes me wonder what new technology is to come that will make even smart phones seem less distracting and binding by comparison.

 

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