the great divide 8.2.2012

I haven’t been to the Martinsdale Hutterite Colony since I was a child. For years I’ve passed by with a vision from that time luring me and yet my adult and feminist eyes disparaging of the hierarchy I can see even from the highway. Very young boys oversee women working in the fields. And it is nearly always the men who are at community events, the women hidden away at home. Regardless I was happy to go when I was invited to attend a pre-wedding viewing of Mary and Dan’s new home. Mary is the daughter of Lena and Ben. Dan is the son of Peter and Dorothy. Both couples are acquaintances of my cousins and this is how I came to be invited.

I was drawn by my memory of a room of gleaming wood surfaces. A bed on either side of a window, a large chest positioned in between and everything resting on highly polished wood floors. I remember the sun was streaming through that window filling the air in a way the made me want to stay. There was also a particular smell: clean but unfamiliar… like everything had just been scrubbed with something strange. I was told that the room I saw was for one family; a harsh comparison to my own 3 storied reality. And yet I remember that room as a lovely place.

We went to Lena’s home first. The rooms were darkened against heat and all the surfaces were of new utilitarian materials: aluminum, vinyl, and plastic. Where was the shinning wood? Where was the Shaker simplicity? And was that a cell phone on the window ledge? Nevertheless, Lena and her daughter Mary were dressed in long skirts and headscarves exactly as I remembered. They asked if we would like to see Mary’s new home, and we stepped across the walk to the new building. Three couples would be marrying and each was to have a unit in this new complex. Nearly identically dressed women were collecting in front of Mary’s new door.

This was a casual event, but followed ritual form. We were shown every room and every cupboard, the furnishings and bedding provided by the colony, as well as the gifts displayed in shrink-wrap with nametags identifying the givers. The gifts ranged from laundry detergent to champagne, to a pair of gliders made by the groom and paid for by the bride’s family. Everything had a purpose. Each gift was proudly displayed and described. The crowd of women moved along with us. I tried not to stand in front of anyone and to offer appropriate compliments and congratulations, but it is hard not to make mistakes when you find yourself in a totally unfamiliar culture. Mary shied at references to her wedding day. Was it the prospect of attention, or sex, or just humility that flushed her cheeks? Lena insisted that we try the gliders. When I commented that they were so comfortable that I could stay there all day, Kate, an older white haired woman admonished; “That won’t get the work done.”

It is a harsh life; I understand that. These women all have appointed “women’s” jobs beyond caring for their own home and family. While they have many accomplishments, meticulous sewing, cooking for crowds, caring for each other…these are all prescribed. I’ve thought of it as a misogynist society. The culture allows for no crossing of guidelines, not either way. It is impossible for a man to be a cook, incomprehensible for a woman to drive a tractor, and unthinkable for a man to love another man. It is this lack of choices that confounds me. I am drunk with opportunities to choose my own path. I cannot see straight into any other reality.

Later, I dreamt about Hutterites. It was a very specific dream story about a single or widowed woman named Sarah. Her room looked out over a vast field and she had some lovely pieces of old furniture. I’d brought her books that I thought she might enjoy, but even before waking I realized that none of this was possible. It was all too full of the aesthetics of my world. It was then that I realized there had been no books at the Hutterite colony. Were they just away in one of the locked cupboards or were there actually none? This may have been my deepest point of no comprehension. I can’t say I didn’t respond to the profound sense of community, to the camaraderie of women. And I am sure somewhere else there was a company of men.

How does a culture radically different exist within another? It seems to require isolation. And yet there we were, invited in, asked back for another visit. Eventually the women asked me a few questions: Did I have children? How long would I be staying? Was my husband here? Lena complemented my shirt and I was so dumbfounded that my flustered response caused her to use a different word. “Your blouse.” What befuddled me? I was generous and complimentary from my side of the cultural boarder. Why did it surprise me coming the other way? What can we learn from either side of such a divide? These women are very real with complex lives. Can we really be so different?