I Need my Rumspringa (Part 1)

Hello readers. I hope you are all enjoying summer. For the most part, I am, but I have to confess I have been a little irritable lately. Part of this I think is due to the heat and humidity. Perhaps because of climate change, it seems like heat and humidity gets to me, even in the house with the air conditioner on. But two other factors have made me irritable the past several summers. Actually, these factors aren’t exclusively limited to summer. Like a dormant virus, I can be fine for months, and then something will happen that triggers this irritability. It can be triggered in the winter, but it really seems to flare up in the summer, perhaps because my patience is lower due to the heat and humidity, but I think another factor is that in the winter, it is more socially acceptable to be the introverted homebody that I am, and also because winter cultural activities that do require leaving the house (choral concerts, symphony orchestra performances, musicals) appeal more to my interests than the summer culture. I have wanted to write about this for years but struggled to find the words. I wanted to be completely honest, but in a way that was mature, thoughtful, respectful, as I do live a blessed life and I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my family whom I love dearly. The situations that can trigger me are on the surface so petty and selfish that even I am embarrassed by them, and this makes me feel even worse. But I think simmering beneath the surface of all these triggers is anxiety about how it seems like I am not where I should be in life, that I am not where my older siblings were when they were my age, that my siblings and peers are growing up and changing without me and I will always be the unemployed or underemployed handicapped child living at home.

On Saturday June 18, the day before Father’s Day, I accompanied my parents on a day trip to visit my brother and his wife who live in a friendly small town about an hour and a half away. Other than going to church and the gym to swim a few times, I had hardly left the house in recent weeks. Choir was over for the summer, and it had been unpleasantly hot and humid, not to mention that I am an introvert who feels most contented off-leash at home. Sure, I spend a lot of time “hulled up in my room” but when I am in my room, I am not playing mindless video games, or immersing myself in online communities that promote hate or q’annon conspiracy theories. I rarely even engage with my social media accounts anymore, especially since I became more aware during the pandemic of the degree to which news feeds are manipulated by algorithms to keep users addicted and angry. When I am “hulled up in my room” I am reading a thoughtful book or article from respected magazines like The Atlantic or The New York Times, listening to thoughtful podcasts like Throughline and Shake the Dust,taking online seminary courses, or writing. I also enjoy coming out of my room to sit around the table with my parents at mealtimes, and I look forward to interacting with friends in choir, at church and at the gym. In other words, while I do enjoy being at home, I AM NOT A HERMIT! Anyway, that Saturday, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to be on-leash for a day. My brother and his wife enjoy coming to visit us, but it had been almost a year since I had visited them, and that day we were given a respite from the heat and humidity, the perfect day to stroll through their local farmers market enjoying wonderful aromas from food vendors and listening to local musicians. My brother’s wife also mentioned taking a local riverboat tour, and I enjoy boat tours. The sighted people enjoy the scenery while I enjoy an informative, and sometimes entertaining narration of the sights, and not through an annoying headset. Sometimes, I don’t even give my full attention to the narration but just enjoy the feel of the breeze on my face and the sound of the lapping water. But as we were heading out of town, Dad called Grandma on the car bluetooth to check in with her as he does every morning. When he told her where we were going, she asked, “is Allison with you?” When Dad replied that I was, she said, “Good, I’m glad to hear she’s getting out.” I love my grandma, but I couldn’t suppress a sigh of annoyance/exasperation. Fortunately I was in the middle bucket seat of our minivan, behind Mom who was sitting up front, and the bluetooth really only picks up sound from the driver and the passenger in the front seat, so hopefully she didn’t hear it. A month earlier, Grandma generously bought me a pair of New Balance shoes for my birthday, but when I insisted on efficiency in the shoe store–I have a “get ‘er done” attitude toward shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, whereas Grandma loves to shop and could have made a whole day of it–she expressed concern that I was going down the path of another mentally ill acquaintance who hardly ever leaves the house. It is true that I was among the introvert who embraced and enjoyed the pandemic restrictions that encouraged staying home, and there are a lot of activities I am invited to but take a pass on: going out to eat (except for a few trusted restaurants), museums, shopping, sporting events, outdoor music festivals where the music is amplified unnecessarily loud in the tents and where outside the tent, people are blowing second-hand cigarette smoke in my face. I have always declined these activities, but I suppose since I am no longer employed outside the house and choir is over for the summer, the amount of time I stay home is more pronounced. But even pre-pandemic when I worked outside the house three days a week at the Social Security disability lawfirm, spent three hours at church most Sunday mornings to attend an apologetics discussion group before the worship service, attended a women’s Bible study with Mom and a neighbor/longtime family friend on Tuesday mornings, went to choir rehearsal Tuesday evenings, went swimming at the gym most Thursdays, attended several excellent plays at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater with my parents, and occasionally participated in social events with a group of young adults from church on Saturdays, Dad still had the nerve to call me a hermit on a couple occasions. I distinctly remember one of those occasions being when we were watching a news story about someone who really was a hermit in the unhealthy sense of the word. I know I should give Grandma and Dad the benefit of the doubt. When I was in elementary school, I used to ride along with my dad to Indiana to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Sometimes my teenage siblings came along, but oftentimes, they stayed home. During these years, Grandpa’s health was failing, so he slept most of the day. After making him lunch and giving him his medication, he would go back to bed, and Grandma would take me shopping at the mall, where she introduced me to all the salespeople whom she knew well. Even then, I found trying on clothes to be a little tedious, but I was more compliant because I loved being the center of attention, and Grandma enjoyed lavishing me with this attention because she loved shopping, but had only sons, and I was one of only two granddaughters (the other being my sister). Perhaps she just misses the little girl I used to be. Perhaps since I am the baby of the family, Dad also misses the little girl I used to be. In addition to the aforementioned trips to Indiana, just the two of us, I often accompanied him to the bakery to get donuts on Saturdays, or to the carwash. I enjoyed this one-on-one time with Dad, and before acquiring adult interests, being at home was actually boring, especially since my teenage siblings hated my favorite kid shows. He has also told me that all his life, he felt tied down, first by the family hotel business, and then by an office job for 40 years. For him, true freedom and relaxation is getting in the car and going somewhere, anywhere, and he just wants me to be “holy, healthy and happy.” He cannot imagine that I am happy spending as much time as I do at home. When the virus is dormant, I can give family this benefit of the doubt, but when the virus flares up, all Christian clarity seems to go out the window.

My sister took the initiative to plan a family vacation in the near future. We have not managed to get the entire family together since Thanksgiving of 2019. Since then, both of my brothers have gotten married, and my sister and I have yet to meet the wife of my brother who lives out in Oregon. Their jobs have kept them too busy to make it to Wisconsin. While I am not a fan of traveling, I will concede my sister is right that our house isn’t big enough to comfortably host our growing family. My sister was worried about having only two bathrooms for nine people. (It was hard enough sharing two bathrooms with six people growing up). I would have to share my bedroom. My sister, to her credit, took my feelings into account, and instead of planning a vacation that would require sharing a tiny hotel room with snoring family members, navigating subway trains, and having to find gluten free restaurants, my sister realized that the perfect vacation for our adult family, and one that would meet all of my needs too, is a beach house vacation in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She was familiar with the beach house concept from her husband’s side of the family, and said that these houses have big fancy kitchens, so we would not have to seek out gluten free restaurants, and in fact, cooking and eating dinner together is part of the beach house experience. Furthermore, we could all choose our own leisure activities during the day, or find plenty of privacy to work from home, which she and her husband would most likely be doing, so there would be nothing wrong with me staying in my room and doing school work. My sister and her husband actually lived in Hilton Head for a few months in 2020 to escape the pandemic which was ravaging New York City, and while she has found it difficult to work remotely from other destinations due to crappy hotel Wifi, she said she had no trouble with the Wifi in Hilton Head. Each couple would have their own bedroom and bathroom, and since I do not have a partner yet, I would get a bedroom and bathroom all to myself! “I don’t rough it,” she told me. She has had some really bad hotel experiences too. On the surface, there is no rational explanation for not entirely looking forward to this vacation. I should not only be looking forward to it, but recognize what a privilege it is that my family is fortunate enough to take such a vacation that 99 percent of the world’s population can only dream of. But this was the summer I was toying with applying for a residency program at a local church to supplement my seminary studies with real-world church ministry experience, and if accepted for the program, I planned to contact Occupaws about being matched with my second guide dog. But the beach house rental contracts are for a full week, and since my sister convinced my parents to drive so that they could bring beach toys and board games that would be too difficult to fly with, we would really be away from home more like a week and a half, and the dates that worked out best for the rest of the family would be basically close to the beginning of the school year which corresponds with the beginning of many church ministry programs. When I asked hypothetically if I could stay home, or stay for a shorter duration should I be accepted into the residency program, my parents basically said no, but assured me that there is nothing wrong with informing an employer of pre-planned vacations upon hire, and that people do this all the time. Maybe so, but given that I would be missing the first or second week of ministry programs, the fear that I would be at an awkward disadvantage when I returned consumed me, and I decided not to apply. I also feel like the family doesn’t fully appreciate that given the 70 percent unemployment rate for blind people, I need to begin a new job with an even more pristine work reputation than would be required for a typical candidate. And I wasn’t sure that introducing a guide dog I had barely begun to bond with to the entire noisy family in an unfamiliar setting would be wise either. I hate that I think this way. I am aware of the irony of wanting to work in a church setting when my thoughts in my personal life are so far from the Christian walk of self-sacrificial love. I am aware, from many sermons and from my Spiritual Formation class that when pastors make their career an idol and neglect family relationships, their career, and their mental health ultimately suffers. I hate that “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, TNIV). I have to say this is one of my favorite Bible verses. Knowing that even the apostle Paul struggled with this is the only reason I haven’t given into despair and hopelessness about my hypocrisy.

One career path I have been considering is chaplaincy because when I worked at the Social Security disability firm, I really enjoyed talking to people battling serious conditions like cancer, and while I wasn’t allowed to explicitly share my faith, I remember thinking that if given a little formal training and a context where I could share the Gospel, I would love to make a career of ministering to these people. But just after Christmas, the dormant irritability virus flared up again when my parents wanted to go to Indiana to visit Granny who now lives in a nursing home. None of my other siblings, or any of the cousins for that matter, would be there, and I really wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet at home to just write or maybe read a good book after what had been a busy semester. But my parents took it as a given that I would be going to Indiana, and got really upset when I tried to tell them I wanted to stay home. To be fair, when Mom saw how glum I was, we had a constructive discussion in which she confessed that she was worried about leaving me home alone overnight given my seizure in 2017. She would have let me stay home on that trip, and I was allowed to stay home without an ounce of pressure on a subsequent trip in May, but I ended up going at Christmas after all because I hadn’t visited Granny in-person since the Christmas before the pandemic, and I also heard a facetious voice from God in my mind drawing attention to my hypocrisy, “so you want to be a chaplain and sit at the bedsides of sick people, but you cannot be bothered to visit your own grandma in the same situation? Excellent career choice! And is compassion really genuine when you are being paid for the time spent at a patient’s bedside?” True compassion is cultivated when it is self-sacrificial and unpaid, which is perhaps one of the many reasons God put us in families. The greek word that translates to compassion literally means “to suffer with” and by sitting at Granny’s bedside talking to her while Mom helped her cut up some chicken they brought her for dinner, I hated feeling powerless to do anything to make her situation more enjoyable, but was moved when just being there and talking to her seemed to lift her spirits.

By the time my sister came to visit at the beginning of June, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about being away from home for a week and a half, and postponing the start of life with a new guide dog and the launch of a new career by a year, but once again, through reflection on my own hypocrisy, I was slowly coming to terms with it. In fact, I should know well from past experiencethat as cliche as the saying is, everything really does happen for a reason. Maybe I would be better prepared for the residency if I took one more year to complete a couple additional courses. Maybe God has an opportunity in store for me that is a much more appropriate fit than the residency would have been, and he orchestrated this trip, and my corresponding hesitancy to apply for the residency to slow me down so I wouldn’t miss his better plan. And then we were sitting down to dinner and while I don’t remember the exact larger context of the conversation, it had nothing to do with the Hilton Head vacation. As part of the conversation I casually mentioned that I might have to splurge and treat myself to some Brad’s crunchy kale. This snack is one of the few crunchy processed snacks I still allow myself to eat because all of the ingredients are healthy, but they are so ridiculously expensive I only order them once or twice a year. But when I said this, my sister said she could get me some in Hilton Head and that would be something to look forward to on the trip. And with that, I had a flare-up. I couldn’t shake a grumpy, glum mood the rest of her visit. First of all, it’s not as though this snack is a special treat only available in Hilton Head, in the same way that alligator stew is unique to New Orleans, or at least I have never seen it on a Midwestern restaurant menu. The crunchy kale is manufactured in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, and Mom or Dad could drive five minutes down the road and buy a bag from Pick ‘n Save. (I only order them because I feel less guilty eating them when I have bought them with my own money, and because I can get a case of 12 bags.) But more importantly, I love my sister, but with this comment, I sensed she still thinks of me as the little sister she used to babysit who could be bribed with candy.

After the farmers market that Saturday with my brother and his wife, Dad found a lunch place where I had a wonderful gluten-free salad garnished with sunflower seeds and topped with chicken, and then we came back to their house where I enjoyed a fresh peach while they sliced up some pies they bought from an amish vendor at the farmers market. As they raved about how delicious the pies were, the perfect analogy came to me, the perfect words to express what I think I need, the thing that might finally slay the dormant virus. I need my Rumspringa.

The amish community has strict rules regarding dress, simple living, moral conduct. But around age 16, amish youth go through a rite of passage called Rumspringa, a german word that translates “running around.” During this period, they are permitted to leave the community, see what it is like to live in the outside world (“dress english” drive cars, use technology, even experiment with alcohol and drugs.) After this period, which generally lasts around two years, youth must decide whether they want to be officially baptized into the amish community and live by its strict rules for life, or whether they want to live in the outside world. If they choose to live in the outside world, they are shunned, which is viewed by the community as an act of tough love.

Of course, this is far from a perfect analogy to my situation, but when youth in Western societies go off to college, strike out on their own as my older siblings did, I think you could call this a sort of Rumspringa. All of my siblings have expressed interest in spending more time with family recently, humbled by the pandemic no doubt and also because they are all married now and have reached a point in life where they are ready to settle down. But there was a period of a few years where they fell off the family map. They would generally call every couple weeks, or if we hadn’t heard from them in a couple weeks, my parents would call them for a welfare check, but they did not go to Indiana to visit extended family for holidays or summer reunions, which didn’t seem to concern my parents, and there were periods when my parents and I didn’t see them in-person for months at a time. When they did come home, they were changed people, especially my oldest brother and sister who moved further away, as they were exposed to new people, cultures and ideas. The summer after fourth grade, my parents took most of the family to Washington D.C., and over Spring break in fifth grade, most of us went on a Caribbean cruise. I say most of us because for both of these big family vacations, my oldest brother was in college, living in an apartment downtown doing his own thing, and did not come with us. I don’t remember my parents being upset by this at all. The cruise was a lot of fun, especially the day I got to kiss a dolphin in Nassau Island. The week of museums in Washington D.C., not so much. (I would not have wanted to be left home alone for a week from D.C., even if it would have been legal. I would have just liked even one day in a swimming pool instead of a museum). But on these first couple trips without my oldest brother, I remember being struck with the realization that, “wow, we will all grow up and be off doing our own thing like him someday.”

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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