Plain and Simple; A Woman's Journey to the Amish

Plain and Simple; A Woman's Journey to the Amish

by Sue Bender
     
 

Twenty years ago, while walking through a men's clothing store in" Sag Harbor, New York, Sue Bender found herself drawn to an array of old Amish quilts that served as a background to a display of tweeds. She was immediately struck by their deep, saturated colors, the geometric simplicity of their design, and their quiet power. "They spoke directly to me," she

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Overview

Twenty years ago, while walking through a men's clothing store in" Sag Harbor, New York, Sue Bender found herself drawn to an array of old Amish quilts that served as a background to a display of tweeds. She was immediately struck by their deep, saturated colors, the geometric simplicity of their design, and their quiet power. "They spoke directly to me," she writes. "They knew something.They went straight to my heart." That was the beginning of her "journey of the spirit."

Plain and Simple, illustrated with the author's own drawings, is the gentle, eloquent story of that journey. Bender, a wife, a mother, and a dedicated artist from Berkeley, California, sought out Amish families that would allow her-one of the outsiders the Amish call the "English"-- to visit and share in their daily fives.

In language as spare and vivid as Amish art, Bender recounts her venture into an entirely different world, the seemingly timeless world of the Amish, a landscape of immense inner quiet. With an inquiring eye, she describes the months she spent in Iowa and Ohio with two Amish families. She illuminates the everyday rhythms of their world and conveys the life of the people who taught her about simplicity, commitment, and the joy of doing what you do well.

In nine chapters, as interrelated and well-crafted as a classic nine-patch Amish quilt, Bender speaks to the seeker in us all and reveals how she was drawn to -- and changed by -- the Amish values of austerity, humility, and the ordinary. "How" they live reflects what they believe" she writes. "Their life is their art!"After living and working with these people whose values were so unlike her own, Bender was able to return home and rework her "crazy quilt" life into a new pattern. "I thought I was going to learn more about their quilts," she writes, "but the quilts were only guides, leading me to what I really needed to learn, to answer a question I hadn't yet formed: "Is there another way to lead a good life?"

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Modern-day career woman and homemaker Bender tells of the compulsion--for Amish dolls and quilts that seemed to evoke a simpler life--that took her from New York State to Iowa and Ohio, where she lived with sympathetic Amish families and began the journey of self-discovery here described. The unvarying rhythm of ``plain'' lives, the importance placed on every day's manual labor and the absence of contemporary distractions such as telephones and microwaves proved revelatory; the one-time Californian was awed by ``an aesthetic leanness, a paring down that I have come to appreciate.'' In her graceful tribute to a community of people who value the ordinary as an end in itself, Bender allows us to sojourn vicariously miles away from the frenzy of contemporary urban life. (Nov.)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062500588
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/28/1989
Pages:
176
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

How It Began

Can an object go straight to your heart ?

Twenty years ago I walked into Latham's Men's Store in Sag Harbor, New York, and saw old quilts used as a background for men's tweeds. I had never seen quilts like that. Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them. They spoke directly to me. They knew something. They went straight to my heart.

That was the beginning. Innocent enough.

How opposite my life was from an Amish quilt.

My life was like a CRAZY QUILT, a pattern I hated. Hundreds of scattered, unrelated, stimulating fragments, each, going off in its own direction, creating a lot of frantic energy. There was no overall structure to hold the pieces together. The Crazy Quilt was a perfect metaphor for my life.

A tug-of-war was raging inside me.

In contrast to the muted colors of the Amish, I saw myself in extremes: a black-and-white person who made black-and-white ceramics and organized her life around a series of black-and-white judgments.

I divided my world into two lists. All the "creative" things — the things I valued, being an artist, thinking of myself as undisciplined and imaginative — were on one side, and the boring, everyday things — those deadly, ordinary chores that everyone has to do, the things I thought distracted me from living an artistic life-were on the other side.

I was an ex-New Yorker living most of the time in Berkeley, California; a wife and mother of twosons; an artist and a therapist with two graduate degrees, one from Harvard, one from Berkeley. That was my resume.

I valued accomplishments.

I valued being special.

I valued results.

The driven part didn't question or examine these values. It took them as real, and believed it was following the carrot "success" whole heartedly. Didn't everyone believe in success? I never asked, "Success at what cost?"

A part of me is quiet. It knows about simplicity, about commitment, and the joy of doing what I do well. That part is the artist, the child — it is receptive and has infinite courage. But time and my busyness drowned the quiet voice.

In the world in which I grew up, more choices meant a better life.

It was true for both my parents and my grandparents. I was brought up to believe that the more choices I had, the better.

Never having enough time, I wanted it all, a glutton for new experience. Excited, attracted, distracted, tempted in all directions, I thought I was lucky to have so many choices and I naively believed I could live them all.

A tyranny of lists engulfed me. The lists created the illusion that my life was full.

I would wake at five A.M. eager to begin. The first thing I did was compose my Things to Do list. This gave me great pleasure, even though the list was nothing more than a superimposed heap o choices, representing all the things I enjoyed doing and all th things I had to do, crowding and bumping against each other. An organized person would have said "This is ridiculous. It's unrealistic. No one could accomplish so many things in one day."

Sometimes I would stop in the middle of the day, when the scene on the page looked especially chaotic, and rewrite the list, never thinking to take anything off, but hoping the newly transformed neat rows would overcome my feeling of being overwhelmed. I was a balancing act on one foot —,even when I was doing something I enjoyed, my mind jumped about, thinking of what was next or my list.

I never thought to stop and ask myself, "What really matters?' Instead, I gave everything equal weight. I had no way to select what was important and what was not. Things that were important didn't get done, and others, quite unimportant, were completed and crossed off the list.

Accumulating choices was a way of not having to make a choice but I didn't know that at the time. To eliminate anything was a foreign concept. I felt deprived if I let go of any choices.

By evening, the list had become a battlefield of hieroglyphics; crossed-off areas, checks and circles, plus the many temptations

added during the day. The circles were there to remind me of all the tasks that didn't get done. Tomorrow's list began with today's leftovers.

I never questioned my frantic behavior. When I looked around, most of my friends were like me, scurrying around and complaining that they never had the time to do all the things they really wanted to do.

Only now, looking back, can I hear a child's voice inside me calling "STOP, I want to get off. The merry-go-round is spinning faster and faster. Please make it stop."

At the time I thought I was extremely lucky. But something was missing, and though I could not have said what that "something" was, I was always searching, believing there was something out there — and if only I could find it. That "if only" kept me trying to change. I took classes-trying to improve, hoping I'd be a better person. A friend laughed, "I'll know you've changed when you stop trying to change."

I didn't know that my addiction to unrelenting activity produced a quiet desperation that permeated every cell of my being. In the world of "if only," nothing I was doing would ever be enough.

Spinning frantically, I left myself out.

I had become an artist by chance.

In 1960, three months before the birth of my first child, I stopped teach ng history at New Rochelle High School in New York and joined a clay class. The timing was perfect: I had planned to miss only three months of teaching before school began again in September. I never returned. In those few months, I fell in love with clay. Clay was soft and responsive. It had its own rhythm, its own heartbeat, a timing sensitive to moods and the atmosphere, just like a person. It didn't make demands, but it did ask me to pay attention and to listen. I thought being receptive meant being "out of control," so I had a lot of difficulty with that part of the relationship. On damp days, the clay took longer to harden. Impatient, I put the pieces in my kitchen oven, willing them to dry faster.

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Meet the Author


Sue Bender is the author of Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish (HarperSanFrancisco). The book was a New York Times bestseller. A fascination with Amish quilts led Sue to live with the Amish in their seemingly timeless world, a landscape of immense inner quiet. This privilege, rarely bestowed upon outsiders, taught her about simplicity and commitment and the contentment that comes from accepting who you are. In this inspiring book, Bender shares the lessons she learned while in the presence of the Amish people.

In Everyday Sacred: A Woman's Journey Home (HarperSanFrancisco: now in its sixth printing), Bender speaks to our longing to make each day truly count. She chronicles her struggle to bring the joyful wisdom and simplicity she experienced in her sojourn with the Amish back to her hectic, too-much-to-do days at home. Bender discovers for herself, and in the process shows us, that small miracles can be found everywhere'in our homes, in our daily activities and, hardest to see, in ourselves.

Profiles and interviews with Ms. Bender, as well as book excerpts have been published in countless national publications including Reader's Digest, The Washington Post, Ladies' Home Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Utne Reader, and W Magazine. She has also appeared as a guest on dozens of radio and television shows.

Born in New York City, Sue Bender received her BA from Simmons College and her MA from the Harvard University School of Education. She taught high school in New York and English at the Berlitz School in Switzerland. She later earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of California at Berkeley. During her active years as a family therapist, Bender was founder and Director of CHOICE: The Institute of the Middle Years. In addition to being an author and former therapist, Sue Bender is a ceramic artist and much sought after lecturer nationwide. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Richard, and is the mother of two grown sons.

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