Friday, March 26, 2010

What is "Plain Dress"?

To most "English" (Amishspeak for "non-Plain" folk), "Plain dress" conjures up images of men in beards without mustaches; hair combed back and cut straight across the back of the neck; broadfall pants; collarless shirt, vest and coat; dark colors and blue or white shirts; suspenders; no zippers or buttons; women in prayer (head) coverings and outer bonnets; long dresses with long sleeves, shoulder capes and built-in aprons; etc. This is a form of dress that has evolved slowly and thoughtfully from the "fashion" of the early days of the denomination. They just stopped keeping up with the latest styles, and started making thoughtful, practical decisions about their clothing from a spiritual point of view.

To me, my evolution of an "urban stealth Plain" dress has been a personal journey with one little snippet of the Gospel story...told in slightly different words by different authors (Matt 18:25 etc.; Luke 16:22 etc.), later turned one way and another by different translators, but essentially summarized thus:

"Don't worry about what to wear; God knows you need clothes. Instead, seek the Kingdom of God, and He will take care of you."

Embedded in these texts by way of example is the lovely verse about "Consider the lilies of the field..." And the bean plants, and the lettuces, and the willow trees....

Before I had even really committed myself to be baptized as a Christian, I spent a lot of time "considering the lilies"...and the beans, etc. Transitioning from careers in corporate America to farming meant a lot of changes. One day I was out weeding beans, and found myself--I kid you not--worrying about the fact that I was wearing silver earrings that didn't "go with" my gold watch! And this scripture came to mind. And I realized how ridiculous I was, out there by myself in the bean patch, up to my elbows in weeds and dirt, worrying about what to wear!

The beans certainly didn't care. Nor did the birds of the field, nor the willows. Nor, almost certainly, did God care whether my earrings matched my watch.

My "mantra" became "The beans don't care!" as I started weaning myself away from the old, vain, frivolous concerns of the corporate work-world, and teaching myself to worry more about things that mattered--how I treated other people, that I prayed, that I was honest, how I nurtured my fledgling relationship with God.

"Don't worry about what to wear!" began to guide my clothing choices, rather than fashion or convention--not that I'd ever been very good at playing that game, anyhow! It really was a relief to stop playing it.

I started examining what I "worried" about in clothing. "Skirt or pants?" was one thing. Skirts meant that I was goofing off from the farmwork, and became reserved for summer nightwear. One less decision to make each time I dressed...the burden of worrying about what to wear began to ease.

The realities of my farm work--scratches, bug bites, sunburn, etc.--quickly showed the wisdom of long pants and long sleeves no matter what the weather. Soon my closet and drawers were noticably emptier, as the shorts and t-shirts followed the skirts to the thrift store. Shirt sleeves could be rolled up or down as needed, as could loose pants (hint: fold a pleat in the ankle, then roll up--they will stay secure just below the knee).

When the automatic washing machine quit, and I resorted to doing laundry in the wringer washer I use for washing wool, I discovered that buttons and zippers and fancy pockets on jeans made them hard to get through the wringer. Pants with simple side-seam pockets, elastic waists, and no zippers, buttons, or other trims not only washed easier, but were more comfortable for bending and squatting in the garden, and used less resources in their manufacture...also much easier and quicker to sew at home if I ever get the time.

Natural fibers were a natural step, too. Cotton is cool in the summer compared to synthetics; linen is even cooler. Ironing? Not so necessary if you hang the laundry on the clothesline and pull it into shape as you hang it. Shirts go from the washing machine to a hanger, where they are ready to go in the closet after an afternoon in the sun or near the woodstove or on the clothesline in the basement. Wool, of course, has long been my choice for outer wear--warm even when wet. Finely woven silk, I was told by someone on my Canadian adventure, prevents mosquitos from biting, so silk shirts made their way into my repertoire for summer wear.

I bought my clothes at thrift stores, mostly charities. So my clothing budget shrank, and became one with my support for those in need. That was a nice feeling. And shopping there put me in touch with the lives of those who were struggling to survive economically, as I heard their conversations with the cashiers and each other. I began to be less isolated from real people, started moving away from the "ivory tower" environment I'd been raised in.

I still found myself spending a lot of time with style...selecting blouses with pretty fabrics and fancy trims when I found them. After awhile, I started thinking about the waste of resources represented by printing multicolor patterns onto fabrics. How unnecessary! I started only buying yarn-dyed fabrics, and left off the lace edging and other ornaments. Mostly this meant button-front shirts with woven-in stripes or solid colors.

Color was my next focus. I still got up in the morning and tried to decide what color I was in the mood for...or what color the person I was visiting that day would like. Worry, worry, worry! I switched to black pants and black turtlenecks for winter, solid color shirts for summer.

With lighter weight and colored shirts and no bra (quit those DECADES ago for comfort reasons), modesty became more of an issue. I started selecting shirts with two chest pockets, which serve some of the same purpose as the shoulder cape in Plain dress. Similarly, I wear the shirt tail "out" so that I'm not showing off my trim waist to just anyone...also more comfortable, and cooler in summer.

So that's about where my "Urban Stealth Plain" dress is at today. Someone seeing me only occasionally probably would not notice anything odd about my dress, except maybe the long sleeves in summer. I might be momentarily mistaken for an artist or a gang member, but the covering takes care of that at second glance. And I no longer "worry about what to wear."

It's sure to evolve more. I'd like to buy fabric and evolve my own custom patterns (a hobby in high school) to sew for pants and work shirts. But that will take time I don't have right now.

When I took the job driving the city transit bus, I'd been wearing this "Plain dress" for a number of years. The company conceded that I could purchase my own elastic-waist pants (they will now partially reimburse me) as long as they were the regulation navy blue color. And they already allowed women to wear their uniform shirts "untucked". They clearly weren't enthusiastic about letting me wear the covering, but realized that was a silly fight to get themselves into.

On the job, it's been interesting to see people (read: drunken middle-aged men) react to seeing a woman in bus-driver uniform wearing a prayer covering. "Aren't you supposed to be wearing a skirt with that thing [the covering]? You should wear a skirt. I bet you look good in a skirt. Yeah, I'd REALLY like to see you in a skirt...."

Yeah, THAT'S why I don't wear skirts.

In such situations, I realize just how well God has guided me in my journey towards an "urban stealth plain dress" that lets me keep my focus on God, so He can take care of me. It's a way of dressing that witnesses to my faith while supporting me in faithful work, and places deeply-held values above vanity. It's a way of being "in the world but not of the world."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Random Reasons...part 3

Because it keeps my hair clean...or at least no one can tell whether it's clean or not.

This is a small but important part of living simply and conserving resources. I don't have to wash my hair as often--saves time and hot water and shampoo. I don't have to dry it as often--saves energy and time.

In my way of life--farming, or sometimes just the fact of having short-term visitors stay with me--there is also the avoidance of "ick factor" to consider. As demonstrated today:

Since I'm transitioning to a much smaller home this year, I'm swapping big furniture for small with my daughter. They brought the bed over to switch out today. Well! Obviously I hadn't vacuumed under the heavy bed for a long time--GROSS! Off I trotted to get the shop vac out of the garage to eradicate the dust dragons (they were WAY beyond bunnies) before installing the new bed.

It sounded really strange. I mean, not like I've ever heard a shop vac sound before. Dust started spouting from the exhaust port--wait, no, that's not right; I have one of those wonderful ultra-fine filters on this!

I stopped and unplugged it and peeked in. EWW! It was fully of pennies and cigarette butts (a visitor had casually mentioned cleaning out a friend's car a few days ago...), and the filter had fallen off so it had been venting that foul blend at the garage floor residue that I'd vacuumed last week. ICK!

I took the filter out to the barn, where there is an air compressor and a lot of fresh air, and blew out the filter. That worked really well to revive the filter, but then I looking like a close relative of the dragons under the bed. YUCK!

By the time the bed exchange had been completed, it was less than half an hour before I was supposed to be at a meeting in town. There certainly wasn't time to wash and dry my hair--there was barely time to jump in the shower. But quickly tying on a clean covering let me feel like I wouldn't offend the people next to me at the meeting.

At least not with the cobwebs, dog hair, and cigarette butt dust in my hair.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Parade

Yesterday was the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in our small city. Quite a big deal this year--I heard there were something on the order of 100 entries.

Someone on the bus commented that they like the St. Patrick's Day parade here because it really shows the town who it is ...the fire department, the electric company (their float had linemen up on utility poles on it...I can imagine their engineers having a blast figuring out how to make that safe!), the day care centers, local businesses, schools, bars, Miss Kansas, you name it. The whole motley assortment. Our other annual parades are perhaps more unique to our community (the horsedrawn Christmas parade, or the art vehicle parade, or the Earth Day parade), but this one is all-inclusive. The parade anyone can be in, the parade for just being seen in a parade.

For me, it was an ordinary work day driving the bus. Well, sort of ordinary. At shift change, when I went on duty, we had to hike across the parade course...making it through just 1/2 block in front of the head of the parade. Traffic! Oh, my! And pedestrians, enough that anarchy took over for the crosswalk lights.

Waiting and waiting in heavy traffic, seeming to go nowhere while theoretically having a schedule, would make others tense, but the job has taught me to just relax and be in the moment. A time to meditate around the edges of full attention to the traffic light before me.

Is this parade really who we are, as a community?

So many people! So focused on one passion--St. Patrick's Day! St. Patrick's Day? Probably few of them know any more about him than I do, so what are they "celebrating" by wearing green--green anything, green everything? Do they even know?

A certain amount is spring fever, a rebound disease from cabin fever. An excuse to be out and about with the kids, to meet up with other families and friends, etc. But a lot of it seems to be simply reiterative. They are excited because the people around them are excited, who are excited because other people are excited...but about what?

Perhaps it is simply that wearing a particular color is one of the safest things they can do together with so many other people--strangers, even. It's something they can agree on, without discussing the details. There is no right or wrong way to do it, you just do it. It's easy. It's cheap. It's one size fits all, good for all ages. It contains no calories (except that green cotton candy) and doesn’t cause cancer (although the green beer was obviously causing some of my customers problems).

But what difference does it make, in the long run? It is so easy to do easy things, but what is the point? This parade may be who we are, but is it who we want to be?

I had a vision of a different parade. A parade for what REALLY matters. A parade about loving our families, whether they are broken or whole, gay or straight, nuclear or extended. A parade about loving our neighbors as our selves, whether they are homeless or housed, renting or owning, like us or different. A parade about loving God, whoever we conceive God to be.

In April, the town will have a parade about loving the Earth Day parade. Will there be 100 floats? Will there be thousands of children watching us say THIS IS IMPORTANT?
Or will they get the message that wearing green and getting drunk and acting silly is the most important thing our community celebrates?

Who are we? Who do we want to be? When do we start being it?

The rainbow covering reminds me that I am in this world, not of this world. I march in my own parade, I AM a parade every time I walk down the street. A parade of one.

A parade for living out my integrity, for keeping my focus on the things that matter.

You can be in my parade if you want to.

Why not now?

Random Reasons...part 2 in a series

...Because I don't have to "worry about what to wear" to be wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. It's just part of the rainbow, and I'm always wearing it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Random Reasons...part 1 in a series

I wear the Rainbow Covering because...

...1 Corinthians 11 sez so. I'm so rebellious in general...always have been, always will be unless a miracle occurs...that when I realized there was a rule in the Bible about women that I COULD obey, I grabbed it quick! makes "bad hair days" a moot point. Though not impossible, since my flyaway hair sometimes frizzes out from under it in a most untidy manner. helps people understand that I really DON'T watch TV and have NO idea what they are talking about. also helps people realize right away that I "march to a different drum" in many ways. Before, they would assume I was "normal", and then we would spend a lot of time and energy getting acquainted before they realized they really didn't want to hang out with me after all. Apparently my presence tends to remind people of all the stuff they don't want to do, or don't think they "should" do, but do anyway and then feel guilty about (cussing, drinking, all that "immoral" stuff the Bible lists). So they'd rather go away from me and not be reminded of what they think their "sins" are, instead of accepting that I accept them as they are (at least as long as my personal boundaries are respected).

So, with the covering many folks don't even try to have a conversation or be friends. The ones who want to learn to know me despite the covering are more likely to actually "get" who I am and what I'm doing, and respect me as I am. Of course, there are always some who approach because they think I can somehow intercede for them with God..."Pray for me, will ya?"

Ah, humanity! Too often we find it easier to believe in an angry God than in a loving one! Too often we doubt the power of our own clumsy prayers, and believe that some other human's prayers have more value to God! Whole churches have been founded on these ideas...but as for me, that is not what I understand from the gospels.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


A church I formerly attended is considering changing the starting time of its weekly one-hour worship service, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. One of the considerations is that this later time "might be more convenient for families".

I presume this means easier to get the kids out of bed and fed and dressed, with maybe a little relaxed time for the grownups to sip a cup of coffee and read the Sunday paper. Having been a single parent, I know what it is to struggle to get out the door at all, under ANY circumstances. I know the tears and wails, the lost shoes, the missing buttons, the tantrums over a rejected breakfast menu item or a forgotten favorite toy....

And yet....

When I visit my Old Order River Brethren friends, and arrive Saturday afternoon so I can attend meeting with them the next morning, the household arises about 5:30 a.m. on Sunday. The 10 children, from toddler to college graduate, are in the car (van!) in less than an hour--no fussing, no drama, no crises. Everyone moves quietly and efficiently about their farm chores and preparations, as busy and serene as the gentle bees in one of the family's hives.

On the road, we slowly relax into full wakefulness, and begin to eat the snacks prepared the night before: sweet rolls, apple wedges, other finger foods. The children talk quietly, sing, engage their baby brother. By 9 a.m., we've arrived in Dallas Center, near Des Moines, where there is a "large" community of this tiny Plain (somewhere in between Amish and Old German Baptist) denomination.

The children sit peacefully through the 3-hour service. ALL the children, and there are a lot of large families with little ones.

No ritalin. No force. No problem.

Something is working there, in the Old Order River Brethren culture. Something is not working here, in modern church culture.

It is observations like this that intrigue me, that lead me on in this odd journey towards a greater faith.

Divine Affirmation, or Coincidence?

"One generation's spiritual convictions become the next generation's traditions, which can become the next generation's inconveniences."

Because I was late (as usual...but I'm rarely alone in this, and no one seems to mind) to church today (not so much because of Daylight Savings Time, as because of the amount of time and chocolate involved in the creation of this blog in the wee hours last night), I missed the beginning of the message. My friend M. shared it with me afterward, including the above quote from one of the ministers.

It seems a young woman of the church in another state was asked by a stranger why she wore the prayer covering, and she couldn't give an answer!

So today's sermon (by a highly respected visiting minister) made sure that THIS flock had good, short, scriptural summaries of some of the basic tenets of the church's doctrine. It was as if God were dictating to me an outline for this blog in the coming months, and reminding me of the real reason I'm doing it:

Because I know exactly why I wear the rainbow covering...a far broader and more complex host of reasons than "it's a conviction". Over time I will share many of those reasons.

The aspects of Old German Baptist doctrine which he highlighted included: Baptism--a kind of "burial" and resurrection. The prayer covering--to be worn all the time, based on Corinthians 11, as a sign of submission to the divine order (God--Christ--men--women--children), and because we never know when we might need to pray. No women speaking in church or at Annual Meeting (though they have a say in local church affairs, I was glad to hear). Love Feast/Communion--including preparation visits by pairs of brothers, footwashing, unleavened bread, a full reenactment of the Last Supper including a meal AND the (unleavened) bread and wine (not grape juice). Not "closeD" communion, but "close" communion, i.e. communion only with those who are truly in full fellowship.

I should explain that I've been attending the Old German Baptist church south of town for a full year now. The Old German Baptist church, proper (not the Old German Baptist New Conference, which divided from the Old last summer...but that's another story), is one of many branches on the complicated family tree of the Anabaptist denominations. The early Anabaptists split off from the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches in the mid-1600s, a diffuse radical movement of courageous individuals who read the Gospels for themselves and tried to follow Christ's word faithfully, even to torture and death at the hands of the "official" Christian churches. Anabaptism evolved through the centuries by way of many schisms, resulting in what we know today as Amish, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ, Old Order River Brethren, Hutterite, and many splinters, sects and divisions of these.

The Old German Baptists are a Plain denomination...not nearly as Plain as the Amish (George Foreman electric grills, minivans, elaborate buttons, and fancy print synthetic dress fabrics are clearly acceptable), but still distinctive. The women wear stiff gauze prayer coverings tied firmly under the chin, and caped dresses with long straight sleeves and hems well below the knees. Black bonnets and capes serve as cold weather wraps. Men wear characteristic full beards, no mustache, and hair cut straight across the back of the neck. Black vests and broadfall pants, collarless coats, and white shirts make the men's attire as somber as the women's dresses are colorful. Despite the name of the denomination, church is in English.

I made regular attendance there my personal Lenten discipline last year...sort of ironic, because Lent does not seem to be observed in the Plain churches. Even before I became a Christian, I liked Lent. Just my kind of religious holiday--an excuse to step out of the relentless march of mainstream consumerism in some manner for a few weeks.

Over the years I've found Lent to be a great way of "trying on" new habits that I think will make me a better person. It's easier to say I'm going to change for 6 weeks (and then just keep on going if I like the spiritual fruit of that change...or not) than to proclaim an open-ended change and then change back when it doesn't work out quite so well. Sometimes it takes me awhile to figure out what my discipline will be, like this year--I just figured out it's writing this blog. Last year, the trial period was a resounding success, and I try to attend as often as I can gird myself for the 30-45 minute drive.

Why this church suits me will hopefully become more clear as I blog on. It does seem like an anomaly, because of my relational and sexual history and deep roots in Women's headstrong approach to life in general.

One reason--the first reason, perhaps, and maybe the only reason I need, is that every time I go there, I feel like God has given the message to the ministers just for me. I hear exactly what I need to hear, in each moment, to reaffirm my faith in a God that perplexes me.

As in the quote at the beginning of this essay.

A Starting Point

After a lifetime of fascination with the Amish, "simple" living, etc., I "serendipitously" wandered in to the liberal Mennonite church in middle age. This was a profound turning point in my long and circuitous faith journey.

Here I found, after a long journey through many spiritual practices, a Christian church that professed the same things I saw when I read the Gospels: Simplicity, non-violence, honesty, separation of church and state, priesthood of all believers, adult baptism, radical faith in a loving God. I was baptized, I became a member.

Before long, I found my path leading right back out the other side of the Mennonite Church--from "not a Christian" to "conservative fringe" in something just a few years. I gradually found my way along a path my liberal church wouldn't follow...something I sometimes describe as "urban stealth Plain"...or in lighter moments, "MennAnaQuak" (I sojourned with the Religious Society of Friends, a.k.a. Quakers, for a few years).

Searching for an outward sign of this inward journey, I began wearing a traditional Anabaptist "prayer covering" in not-so-traditional rainbow colors, to signify one of my other essential core identities: not conventionally heterosexual, according to either Plain or "English" culture.

This blog invites others to join me in exploring, sharing, reflecting, and encouraging one another in our personal explorations of what it means to be "Plain" and "Queer", "In the world but not of the world", all at the same time.