Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

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by Sue Bender
     
 

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"I had an obsession with the Amish. Plan and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary."

So begins Sue Bender's story, the captivating and inspiring true story of a harried urban Californian moved by the beauty of a display of quilts to seek out and live with the

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Overview

"I had an obsession with the Amish. Plan and simple. Objectively it made no sense. I, who worked hard at being special, fell in love with a people who valued being ordinary."

So begins Sue Bender's story, the captivating and inspiring true story of a harried urban Californian moved by the beauty of a display of quilts to seek out and live with the Amish. Discovering lives shaped by unfamiliar yet comforting ideas about time, work, and community, Bender is gently coaxed to consider, "Is there another way to lead a good life?"

Her journey begins in a New York men's clothing store. There she is spellbound by the vibrant colors and stunning geometric simplicity of the Amish quilts "spoke directly to me," writes Bender. Somehow, "they went straight to my heart."

Heeding a persistent inner voice, Bender searches for Amish families willing to allow her to visit and share in there daily lives. Plain and Simple vividly recounts sojourns with two Amish families, visits during which Bender enters a world without television, telephone, electric light, or refrigerators; a world where clutter and hurry are replaced with inner quiet and calm ritual; a world where a sunny kitchen "glows" and "no distinction was made between the sacred and the everyday."

In nine interrelated chapters--as simple and elegant as a classic nine-patch Amish quilt--Bender shares the quiet power she found reflected in lives of joyful simplicity, humanity, and clarity. The fast-paced, opinionated, often frazzled Bender returns home and reworks her "crazy-quilt" life, integrating the soul-soothing qualities she has observed in the Amish, and celebrating the patterns in the Amish, and celebrating the patterns formed by the distinctive "patches" of her own life.

Charmingly illustrated and refreshingly spare, Plain and Simple speaks to the seeker in each of us.

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Editorial Reviews

May Sarton
Just plain wonderful...I haven't read such a nourishing book for a long time.
New York Times Book Review
An account of a quest that leaves [Bender] content and, magically, has the same effect on the reader...In prose that seems to echo the rhythm of Amish life, the author kicks around some old questions with surprising freshness...Listening to her gentle voice consider the questions is charming and, somehow, invigorating.
San Francisco Focus
As simple and vibrant a creation as the Amish quilts that first drew Bender into her journey.
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:
9780061873836
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
03/17/2009
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
176
Sales rank:
429,142
File size:
1 MB

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.

"Who made these quilts?" I demanded.

"The Amish."

I went back to Latham's every day that summer, as if in a trance, not noticing it at first, just something I did in the midst of all the other things I was doing. Visiting the quilts became a practice, something like a spiritual practice, the one constant in days that were otherwise filled with the activities of summer.

I stared at the quilts. They seemed so silent: a "silence like thunder." It was 1967, and I was thirty-three years old.

I had seen lots of old quilts before, made by non-Amish women. They drew on an unlimited palette: plaid, polka dots, calico, corduroy, velvet. Their patterns were endless: Geese in Flight, Log Cabin, Bear Paw, Fans, Pinwheel, School House, Broken Dishes, Old Maid's Puzzle, Indian Hatchet, Crown of Thorns, and many more.

The Amish used the same few patterns over and over--no need to change the pattern, no need to make an individual statement.

The basic forms were tempered by tiny, intricate black quilting stitches. The patterns-tulips, feathers, wreaths,pineapples, and stars--softened and complemented the hard lines, and the contrast of simple pattern and complex stitchery gave the flat, austere surface an added dimension. I wondered if quilting was an acceptable way for a woman to express her passion?

I learned that the Amish used their old clothing to make the haunting colors in the quilts. Nothing was wasted; out of the scrap pile came those wondrous saturated colors. Like most deeply religious farm people, the Amish wore dark, solid-colored clothing, made from homespun material. But underneath, hidden from view, were brightly colored petticoats, blouses, and shirts.

Colors of such depth and warmth were combined in ways I had never seen before. At first the colors looked somber, but then looking closely at a large field of brown--I discovered that it was really made up of small patches of many different shades and textures of color. Greys and shiny dark and dull light brown, dancing side by side, made the flat surface come alive. Lush greens lay beside vivid reds. An electric blue appeared as if from nowhere on the border.

The relationship of the individual parts to the whole, the proportion, the way the inner and outer borders reacted with each other was a balancing act between tension and harmony.

The quilts spoke to such a deep place inside me that I felt them reaching out, trying to tell me something, but my mind was thoroughly confused. How could pared-down and daring go together? How could a quilt be calm and intense at the same time? Can an object do that? Can an object know something?

•   •   •

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 two sons; 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" wholeheartedly. 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 to compose my Things to Do list. This gave me great pleasure, even though the list was nothing more than a superimposed heap of choices, representing all the things I enjoyed doing and all the things I had to do, crowding and bumping against each other. Any organized person would have said "This is ridiculous. It's unrealistic. No one could accomplish so many things in one day."

Plain and Simple. Copyright © by Sue Bender. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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