Rumspringa, a German term generally translated in English as “running or jumping around,” is a rite of passage that occurs during adolescence in some Amish and Mennonite communities. During Rumspringa, usual behavioral restrictions typical to Amish and Mennonite communities are relaxed, thereby granting the youth a chance to experience life outside of Amish or Mennonite norms. The Rumspringa classically comes to an end with a choice. The youth decides to be baptized and continue to live in the world that he/she grew up in, or he/she decides to leave the Amish or Mennonite community altogether.
It is hard to imagine facing a decision of such magnitude in your late teens, years prior to your pre-frontal cortex reaching full maturation. But there it is: Stay, or go. You choose.
Though it is no doubt, entirely inappropriate for me to co-opt the term Rumspringa, I’ve always been a sucker for a good German term, especially ones that convey a concept that the English language cannot capture. So, while I am not Amish, nor Mennonite (though I do very much admire their lifestyle from a distance), I have started to think about my early years abroad as my Rumspringa, and find myself, without any outside party asking me to put my dime down in one world or another, still wading through the question of which world is home.
Before I left for my Gap Year, I went back to my high school to visit teachers. While discussing my plans for the coming year with several of my former teachers, one remarked, “Well I think you’ll have found yourself by the end of that year.” I spent fall of 2004 living with a homestay in Varanasi, India taking classes and doing an independent study in yoga; winter 2005 I was in Thailand doing service work at an overextended day care center; and summer 2005 I was in the Tetons backpacking, climbing, canoeing, and sleeping under stars each night. When listed as a run-on sentence, it does sound like the “just add water” recipe for a young adult to “find herself.” But really what that year did, was just start to crack me open. Instead of finding myself, I became a caricature of the kind of person I thought I wanted to be. I bought long skirts and toe rings and tapestries for my wall when I was in India, hoping that somehow if I had the trappings I would be a yogi. And in the midst of a long, hard hiking day in the Tetons, I broke down and desperately told my instructor, “I thought this course would be fun.” To which she replied, “this course isn’t about having fun,” a statement that baffled and unsettled me, but that years later made sense.
I took that Gap Year because some intuitive core in me knew that the world I had grown up in was not fully my home, and I was lucky enough to have parents that supported me both financially and emotionally in my decision to “jump around” prior to and during college. Travel, seeking, and exploration have never ended in satiation for me. Akin to the unlikely wisdom in the old Pringle’s slogan, “once you pop, you can’t stop,” I’ve found that those aforementioned activities only beget the desire to do more and to dive deeper. It was through my Gap Year that I learned of The International Honors Program—a program, that like my Gap Year, I felt magnetically drawn towards in a way that I can’t explain with reason alone. So after two years on a traditional college campus, I was off again, on a program called “Rethinking Globalization,” that took me and 27 other seekers through Washington D.C., Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico over the course of an academic year.
In reflecting back on that program a few months out from the experience I wrote in a journal: “So what did I get out of this experience besides an exorbitant carbon footprint and a large bill? Well true to advertising I did do some rethinking, though not directly about globalization. Instead I thought a lot about whether or not I should have children. My travels made me fall completely in love with the world we live in and at the same time they made me realize that we are squandering this home at an alarming pace…The faculty told our group on the very first day of our orientation in Washington D.C. that we would not come away from our travels with answers, but instead with better questions. This was an understatement. For the first few months of the program I turned into a mental agnostic. I felt like I couldn’t form an opinion at all. I think it was all part of the unlearning process…the process of questioning those things that I had previously conceived of as immutable truths.”
There are moments from that year that are indelibly etched in my memory. Walking to the beach at sunrise with my home-stay mom in Zanzibar and watching her wade out into the ocean, burka blooming around her. Rising early from a sleepless night spent on a platform in a dung hut in a Boma in Maasailand, heading outside into a quiet morning and watching as a granny in the community lifted the tail of a cow tied to a tree and planted her lips on the cow’s vagina releasing something akin to the raspberries my parents used to plant on my stomach when I was a child. She was performing Kuhblasen (I learned later that day), an old technique to induce greater milk production. The juxtaposition of a night at Gandhi’s ashram where kadhi (handspun cloth) represented so much more than a shirt on your back, to a day at an industrial cotton processing plant outside of Mumbai where mountains of genetically engineered cotton (responsible in large part for a rash of farmer suicides) dominated the landscape. A fire on the banks of a river in the middle of a chickoo farm in India, where members of my group and I voluntarily came forward and burned our most prized material possession we were carrying with us for the year in a radical step towards curbing our materialism. Caracol Cinco, where while waiting for an audience with the Zapatistas we spent hours playing in a jungle-framed waterfall. A naked, sage infused Oaxacan sweat-lodge facilitated by a Shaman.
But more than those particular moments it was the effect of living consistently in the margins of society for the year that left the most lasting impression. Living with and learning from activists and everyday people who moved to the margins by design or by force. And living as part of a group of peers who experimented in our own way with creating a new internal culture by which to live.
I was recently with a group of friends from Rethinking Globalization, and it came up in discussion, that perhaps our year abroad is to blame for the meltdowns we each individually experienced in our twenties. Of course we all know that excuse is a cop out, but the grain of truth that feels significant is that such intense perspective shifting and stretching over such a short amount of time is an unwieldy thing to reckon with. And moreover such an experience demands that you examine in a new light the seemingly simple, but in fact incredibly complex questions of: Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my purpose?
Rumspringa has an expiration date in the Amish and Mennonite communities. In my own life, it seems that I have been on a perpetual Rumspringa for over a decade now. “Jumping around” is no longer a phase, it’s a lifestyle. I’ve been able to weave vocation and community through each of these jumps, but one thing that remains true, is that each successive jump opens the door to new questions, and answers seem more and more elusive. One of my dearest friends is good at reminding me (in the way that only a true friend can) of how insufferable people like me can be. A crisis of identity because I’ve traveled widely and because I am lucky enough to have options? Cry me a river…
I know this is a privileged lament. I'm in an enviable position, but all that being true, it is still an unsettling reality. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop floating between different worlds, and there is much about this possibility and this capacity that I appreciate and enjoy. But there is also an internal tugging to at least identify, which place is home base. And I’m not talking about finding a particular physical geography—though that sounds lovely as well—but more so, identifying the way in which I want to interact with and live in the world, and then learning how to take this core value with me whichever way the wind blows.