Friday, October 06, 2006

Simple Gifts - The Quiet Sorrow of the Amish

Hearing of the killings of Amish children in the little school house near Georgetown, Pennsylvania, I drifted off to a recalling of the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," (I am listening to it now) a motif upon which Aaron Copland based much of his "Appalachian Spring" ballet. Though born and raised Catholic, the words of "Simple Gifts" haunt as essential dogma; a place to be.

From the Associated Press this morning (in part):

GEORGETOWN, Pa. (AP) -- In contrast to bright skies Thursday, horse-drawn buggies splashed along the country roads in a steady rain early Friday, headed to the funeral of a fifth victim of Monday's schoolhouse shootings.
...A sixth victim was reported in grave condition Thursday. County coroner G. Gary Kirchner said he had been contacted by a physician at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey who said doctors expected to take one girl off life support.

Mourners had gathered Thursday inside the fading white rail fence among small, aging tombstones to bury four of the girls killed by a gunman at the one-room school in Nickel Mines.

Farms along the road to the cemetery sprouted newly hand-lettered "posted" and "no trespassing" signs. At a house near the graveyard laundry hung out on a line in the rain.

Thursday meanwhile, had been a day for the Amish to share their grief without the intrusion of outsiders.

State troopers blocked off all roads into the village and led horse-drawn buggies and black carriages holding the girls' hand-sawn wooden coffins to the cemetery on the crest of a hill.

"I just think at this point mostly these families want to be left alone in their grief and we ought to respect that," said Dr. D. Holmes Morton, who runs a clinic that serves Amish children.

Funerals were held for 13-year-old Marian Fisher, 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol and sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Miller, 7. The funeral for 12-year-old Anna Mae Stoltzfus was scheduled for Friday.

The girls, in white dresses made by their families, were laid to rest in graves dug by hand. Amish custom calls for simple wooden coffins, narrow at the head and feet and wider in the middle.

Amish funerals are conducted in German and focus on God, not on commemorating the dead. There is no singing, but ministers read hymns and passages from the Bible and an Amish prayer book.

Funeral processions passed the home of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the 32-year-old milk truck driver who took the girls hostage, tied them up and shot them before killing himself.

Benjamin Nieto, 57, watched the processions from a friend's porch. "They were just little people," he said of the victims. "They never got a chance to do anything."

...many Amish have embraced Roberts' relatives, who may receive money from a fund established to help victims and their families.

Roberts' wife, Marie, was invited to attend the funeral by the family of Marian Fisher; it was unclear whether she attended.

Media were blocked from the funerals and the burials, and airspace for 2 1/2 miles in all directions was closed to news helicopters.

Tragedies such as the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado have become moments of national mourning, in large part because of satellite and TV technology. But the Amish shun the modern world and both its ills and conveniences.

Donors from around the world are pledging money to help the families of the dead and wounded. Amounts ranging from $1 to $500,000 have been received and could help defray mounting medical bills.

At the behest of Amish leaders, a fund has also been set up for the killer's widow and three children.
The pervasive egoism of our times provides the stuff of conflict, hatred, war, biases, fractious religious zealotry, the murder of little girls, the stolen innocence of little boys. There is an embracement of a haughty intolerance of otherness.

Walt Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself:"

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals...
they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied...not one is demented with the
mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived
thousands of years ago,
No one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
Abraham Lincoln (a contemporary of Whitman) said: "We must disenthrall ourselves..."

And, finally, "Simple Gifts:"

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,

'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.
Ah, if only it were possible...

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